There aren’t many potential banana skins for Premier League sides, but Arsenal’s trip to Oxford could be one. And Newcastle should do all they can to swerve a slip at Hillsborough.
Game to watch – Oxford v Arsenal
What with a World Cup, other internationals and the death of a monarch, the Premier League has rarely been more stop-start. It’s all a bit coitus interruptus.
A few clubs will be grateful for a pause before it all gets hot and sweaty again next week, with the FA Cup third round providing a distraction that some will relish more than others.
For Arsenal, the opportunity to gather some composure after getting very excited in midweek has probably come at a good time. The Premier League’s surprising pacesetters took seven points from nine during the festive period, which Mikel Arteta might have accepted before the post-World Cup restart. But he certainly wasn’t satisfied after Newcastle shut them out – by fair means or foul, depending on your viewpoint – at the Emirates on Tuesday night.
Amid a title charge that has caught us all on the hop, Arteta is probably less arsed about the FA Cup than at any other point in his Arsenal reign. That, and the fact he’s made few changes in the Premier League, mean he is certain to rotate heavily for a trip to Oxford in front of the cameras on Monday night, increasing the prospect of an upset.
Which is what we all want to see from the FA Cup third round, right? Perhaps to many, City versus Chelsea (again), Liverpool against Wolves or Everton’s trip to Manchester United are more alluring, but the first weekend of the year ought to be the preserve of bloody-nosed Goliaths and giant-slayers milking a moment in the spotlight.
It’s a potentially tricky trip for Arsenal, one of only six top-flight clubs made to embark upon visits to lower-league opposition. Leeds have demons to conquer at Cardiff, while Forest, Brighton and Leicester are travelling to Blackpool, Boro and Gillingham respectively. Newcastle face a similar prospect…
Team to watch – Newcastle
After supposedly sh*thousing their way to a point at Arsenal, a different challenge awaits Eddie Howe and his very merry men: a cup jaunt to Hillsborough to take on Sheffield Wednesday.
In years gone by, Newcastle don’t seem to have given much of a toss for the domestics cups. At least that’s how it looked from their performances and results, though it is hard to justify whatever disdain they may have held for the FA Cup as it’s so long since they’ve lifted a pot.
This season, when they have just cause to be sniffy about distractions away from the Premier League, they really should fight to swerve the indifference.
Finishing in the top four would be a sensational achievement by Howe. But being the first manager in 68 years to bring silverware (the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup doesn’t count, does it?) would elevate the manager to the God-like reverence reserved for Sir Bobby Robson and Kevin Keegan. And neither of those icons lifted a trophy.
Down to the last eight in the Carabao Cup, with a quarter-final at home to Leicester next Tuesday, Howe could overthink it. He needn’t. Go strong at Hillsborough; do the same when the Foxes rock up three days later. Newcastle are buoyant and momentum will do more than rotation at this stage. Whatever happens in the Premier League, barring a monumental collapse, the season is almost certain to be deemed a success. If they can add a trophy, it will be unprecedented for anyone not picking up their pension.
Manager to watch – Frank Lampard
Similar to Newcastle, Everton’s lack of silverware and their absence of enthusiasm for the cups has baffled and infuriated many of their followers in recent years. Of course, going deep in the FA Cup would enhance Lampard’s prospects but the Everton boss, as he will still be known at least until 10pm on Friday night, can’t think about a cup run. Lampard can barely contemplate next week, especially if the Toffees’ wretchedness continues at Old Trafford.
At this point, it may already be too late for Lampard. Would beating Manchester United make him any more capable of lifting Everton out of their malaise in the long-term? Not likely. Only last week they got a positive result in Manchester at City. Then they came home and were battered by Brighton at a toxic Goodison Park. And few grounds do angry quite like Goodison.
Of course, sacking Lampard would not solve all of Everton’s vast array of problems. But replacing him with a credible manager would be a necessary first step on the road to recovery and reinvention.
In the meantime, we wait to see just how bad it gets for Lampard and Everton. It might not get worse at Old Trafford, but any relief would be temporary. And in the absence of respite, it will only get more perilous and poisonous for the Toffees.
Player to watch – Cody Gakpo
Things are hardly going swimmingly across Stanley Park, with Liverpool also struggling to meet the standards – admittedly far, far higher – expected of them. Still, even if he isn’t a midfielder, at least they have a shiny new striker to look forward to.
The Reds could certainly use a lift and Jurgen Klopp’s signings have been known to offer that more than almost any other club. Virgil van Dijk and Luis Diaz have both brought buoyancy when bought in mid-season and Liverpool need Gakpo to have a similar effect.
The Netherlands forward is set to make his debut against Wolves on Saturday night after his paperwork missed the deadline to face Brentford. A 3-1 defeat and an injury to Van Dijk has seen the gloom descend upon Anfield once more after it was temporarily lifted by a four-game winning run in the Premier League which, for the most part, belied their performances.
Wolves showed against Manchester United and Villa in recent days that they are no longer the soft touch they were before Julen Lopetegui turned up and though beating the Molineux men wouldn’t solve Liverpool’s concerns, losing would certainly heighten the sense of pessimism around the holders.
But, these days, nothing lifts the gloom like a big-name signing. Gakpo is certainly that, especially after the World Cup. Saturday night offers the first chance to see what Klopp has in mind for him and what prospect he has of transferring his incredible PSV form to the English game. Liverpool need it, and now.
European game to watch – Atletico Madrid v Barcelona
Given they had more players than any other club at the World Cup, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by a fraught restart to Barcelona’s season. The La Liga leaders drew a Catalan derby last weekend before being taken to extra-time by third-tier Intercity in the Copa Del Rey on Wednesday.
They remain at the La Liga summit by virtue of goal difference but they could head to Atletico on Sunday as chasers with Real Madrid kicking off the weekend first. Barca will also be without Robert Lewandowski after it was decided that he is suspended after all, despite the club’s attempts to kick the can even further down the road.
Atletico are somewhat off the pace of the leaders – by 11 points, to be precise – but Diego Simeone’s men have returned to action with three wins from three with two players possibly on their way this month, Joao Felix and Alvaro Morata, both on target. The Rojiblancos may be in a transitional phase but they remain a banana skin for the top two, especially this Barca side.
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