Big Midweek: Arsenal v Chelsea, Man Utd, Jurgen Klopp, Declan Rice, Napoli
Wobbling Arsenal meet woeful Chelsea on Tuesday night before Man City face a West Ham side who caved at the weekend. Also: Man Utd and Liverpool push for Europe, while Napoli can end a 33-year wait…
Game to watch – Arsenal v Chelsea
Tuesday night brings a meeting of two sides who’ve hit the skids. One is still going in the right direction, the other heading f*** knows where.
For Arsenal, it might be too late to arrest their slide given the initiative at the top of the Premier League now belongs to Manchester City. Last Wednesday, Arsenal were tucked up and sung a lullaby by the reigning champions in the latest of four games for the Gunners without a win. Three points from 12 available is the clearest evidence of a decline that is likely to prove terminal for their title hopes.
In the short term, Arsenal need a reset. In recent weeks they’ve looked bereft of energy and composure. The second part we can largely put down to their inexperience, certainly compared to City, when the stakes are so high. But you don’t need to have been there and done it already to know that the situation called for calmer heads than Arsenal have exhibited in recent weeks.
How does Mikel Arteta facilitate that reset? The Gunners’ boss is wholly reluctant to make changes either in personnel or shape. ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ has been Arteta’s approach to team selection, which has carried them far. But now Arsenal are malfunctioning so something has got to give.
Still, it could be worse, they could be Chelsea. They really are broken, certainly beyond repair for Frank Lampard. Since he returned to Stamford Bridge to instil some confidence and rejuvenate a shambolically-assembled squad, the Blues have lost five in a row, scoring a single goal.
Chelsea’s problems aren’t Lampard’s fault, but he damn sure hasn’t applied any fixes. Which is a problem when all of the current top four are among their opponents for the last six games of a sorry, sorry season. Just how bad might it get?
Read more: Ranking Todd Boehly mistakes at Chelsea: Lampard fourth as daft new contracts make the cut
Team to watch – Manchester United
United need three wins from their remaining six games to seal their return to the Champions League. It would take a spectacular slump for the Red Devils to choke now, especially with five out of their six opponents currently between 10th and 15th. So, on paper, their toughest remaining test comes on Thursday when they go to Brighton.
The end is in sight for United. They are coming through the ‘worst schedule in the Premier League’ bruised and, at Sevilla, battered. But after Sunday, when they go to West Ham, they have five days off, their longest breather since Christmas.
It’s been a slog for Erik ten Hag and his side, but they need one last push, especially since their away form has been infuriatingly inconsistent. United have won consecutive games on the road only once since the first week of October. They’ve made Old Trafford a fortress; on the road, they’ve all-too-often lost their way.
United know the challenge they will face from Brighton. They met the Seagulls at Wembley last week and eventually triumphed on penalties after a dour stalemate that seemed to suit United just fine. Ten Hag will likely set his side up in a similar way, to cede possession and make the most of their opportunities on the break.
Manager to watch – Jurgen Klopp
United’s closest rivals are currently Liverpool. If the Reds beat Fulham at Anfield on Wednesday night, they could be just four points off the Red Devils by the time Ten Hag’s side kick-off at the AmEx. Another illustration of how much of a head f*** this season has been.
Liverpool have been rotten for much of it but, somehow, they remain in with a shout of a Champions League spot. Klopp has pulled his side out of what appeared an irreversible decline and engineered four consecutive victories after five without a win.
The most recent, against Tottenham, showed simultaneously why Liverpool have been a mess and why they might yet make the best of it. Defensively, they are seriously shaky. The centre-backs have lost much of their authority and the reinvention of Trent Alexander-Arnold as hybrid right-back/midfielder means there are gaping spaces for Liverpool’s opponents to exploit.
So it’s handy that Klopp’s attack has got its act together. They’ve scored 15 goals in their recent run and though Liverpool’s defence looks liable to sh*t their beds at any given moment, their forward line has got damn good at cleaning up their mess.
Can Klopp find a balance in the short term, before the anticipated summer rebuild? Does he need to? Chaos seems to suit the Reds just fine, especially at home. But they can’t rely on Fulham to be as flaky as Tottenham.
Player to watch – Declan Rice
It’s widely assumed that Rice will be on his way this summer. Probably to Arsenal; maybe to Liverpool, or even Wednesday night’s opponents Manchester City. Regardless, the skipper will be loathe to leave the Hammers as a Championship club.
Which could yet happen. It probably won’t, but the Irons are making hard work of guaranteeing their survival. A win at Palace on Saturday would have gone a long way to getting the job done but, despite scoring three goals, all from set-pieces, they conceded four.
On a sunny day at Selhurst Park, there were parts of West Ham’s performance that offered the illusion that it was phoned in from the beach. Again, they were on the wrong end of a ropey VAR call for a penalty but, on balance, the one-goal margin of defeat flattered the Hammers.
If they defend in a similar manner against City and Erling Haaland, it could get messy for Moyes. Rice will be key. With Kurt Zouma likely to be missing and the centre of the Hammers’ defence needing a shield, the England midfielder may have to rein in his marauding instincts to sit and screen instead.
EFL game to watch – Huddersfield v Sheffield United
Huddersfield looked dead and buried before Neil Warnock returned in February. On Thursday, they can secure their survival by beating another of Warnock’s old sides, Sheffield United.
Just a point will do for the Terriers, with the current gap between them and Reading in the last relegation place at three points. Anything but defeat would avoid a nervy last day, when Town host the Royals, who currently have a goal-difference deficit of two.
The Blades might be on the beach. But they could have had their shades and sliders on last Saturday when they hosted Preston amid a promotion party at Bramall Lane. Instead, Paul Heckingbottom’s side battered North End 4-1.
European game to watch – Udinese v Napoli
Inter Milan teed Napoli up to win the Serie A title on Sunday. After Lazio were beaten at the San Siro, all the leaders had to do was beat 14th-placed Salernitana at home and the biggest party Naples has seen for 33 years could begin.
They drew. Boulaye Dia’s late leveller put the champagne back on ice, forcing Napoli to wait a little while longer. Their next opportunity comes on Thursday night, when they go to Udinese, currently one place above Sunday’s party-poopers.
There is talk of moving the game forward by two hours to accommodate the party back in Naples should their team get the win they need. The last two titles have been secured by each of the Milan sides in somewhat muted fashion, but Luciano Spalletti is quite content with delayed gratification: “As far as I am concerned, this just extends the enjoyment, as I am not uncomfortable being in this position at the top of the table. It just carries on the celebration a little longer.”
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