Big Midweek: Tottenham v AC Milan, Erik ten Hag, Chelsea, Declan Rice
It’s a massive midweek for Premier League teams in need of a reaction, with Chelsea and Spurs trailing in the Champions League, while Man Utd and West Ham respond to weekend humiliation…
Game to watch – Tottenham v AC Milan
Tottenham manager Antonio Conte flew back into London from Italy this weekend. If Spurs tamely exit the Champions League on Wednesday night, he might be boarding a return flight before the week is out.
More than a minority of Spurs fans would be fine with that, regardless of the outcome against AC Milan, especially if it results in the return of Mauricio Pochettino. Conte seems almost certain to leave at the end of the season and it isn’t as though anyone is having any fun in the meantime.
Conte might be a problem at Spurs but he isn’t the problem. No one at Tottenham seems to know what they are or even what the point of Spurs is anymore.
It seems their primary purpose is to exist in the Champions League. Not to challenge for it – as they did once under Pochettino – just be present where the money is. It would be a bonus if they could remain so beyond a second leg against Milan who bring a 1-0 lead from the first leg. But more important than anything is that they are there again next season.
That was highlighted when they chucked in the FA Cup last week to be fresh for a game at Wolves they lost anyway, letting Newcastle off the hook and allowing Liverpool to get close enough to smell their breath.
At Wolves, they weren’t dreadful. Actually, they controlled the first half, which Julen Lopetegui evidently wasn’t enjoying. Because his changes wrestled the initiative back and, by the time Adama Traore scored a late winner, it almost felt inevitable.
Maybe Conte’s return to the touchline might prompt Spurs to sharpen up and smarten up against a Milan side similarly struggling for any consistency. But that’s probably optimistic.
Read more: Spurs have forgotten who they are – it’s easy to see why the fans call for Pochettino’s return
Team to watch – Chelsea
Chelsea might not have eased the pressure on their manager by securing their first Premier League win since the middle of January, but at least Potter has something positive to cling to after a grim few weeks. But a win over Borussia Dortmund on Tuesday night – one that overturns the deficit they brought back from Germany three weeks ago – would certainly give the under-fire boss some breathing space if there is a Champions League quarter-final on the horizon.
Blues fans who claim Potter doesn’t know what he’s doing have watched with little patience while the manager has thrown plenty of sh*t in the seven games they went without a win. Finally, some of it stuck against Leeds, who faced a Chelsea side featuring three changes in personnel and a switch in formation to a back-three.
For the most part, it worked. Understandably given their recent fortunes, Chelsea looked panicky and the game got stretched as Leeds chased an equaliser. Regardless of the scoreline, Potter will have to prompt more control from his players, whomever he picks, against Dortmund.
Unlike their hosts, the Germans arrive in west London in flying form. Dortmund have won all of their last 10 games since the restart, conceding more than the one goal Chelsea need just to be level only once – a 4-3 victory in the first game back. On Saturday, they beat the Leipzig side that held Manchester City to remain level on points with Bundesliga leaders Bayern Munich.
Beating Leeds may have earned Potter a reprieve of sorts. Inflicting upon Dortmund their first defeat of 2023 while knocking them out could be a turning point.
Manager to watch – Erik ten Hag
The Manchester United boss has barely put a foot wrong since taking over at Old Trafford, but their seven-goal Anfield annihilation, unexpected though it was, marked a new nadir for the club, just when you thought they had stopped trawling for them.
What does Ten Hag do about it? Probably not a lot. Fuming as he was, the manager insisted that one horror half of football hasn’t eroded the trust his team have built up the last six months. But you can bet he’ll be rather more wary ahead of the games that continue to come thick and fast for United.
The next one is a tricky one too. The Red Devils host Real Betis in the Europa league last-16 first leg at Old Trafford before the return a week later. Betis, fifth in La Liga having held Liverpool conquerors Real Madrid to a goalless draw at the weekend, have already beaten United this season, albeit a reserve side in a friendly while most of the big names were in Qatar for the World Cup.
So Ten Hag has to get around his players and offer either the arm he feels they need or the rocket he reckons they deserve. After Sunday, he’ll surely be reaching for more sticks than carrots ahead of a test of character many assumed United had already passed.
Read more: Manchester United need Ten Hag to switch off the soap opera before the first adverts
Player to watch – Declan Rice
The West Ham skipper looked demoralised after being given the runaround by Brighton at the AmEx on Saturday. So poor was he that Rice made the weekend’s Worst XI. And he wasn’t ashamed to admit that he and his team-mates were lucky if they were second best to the Seagulls.
“That wasn’t a performance that was acceptable at all. I never want to feel like that on a football pitch. We’ve let the fans down massively. Credit to Brighton, they played us off the pitch. They have a unique way of playing, and we didn’t work it out. I know it’s cliched to stand here and say it’s not good enough but on days like today you have to apologise to the fans. We’ve let them down, let the club down. As a player I’m hurting. To be out there, it was demoralising – to stand there, to try to defend and see them keep the ball.”
If there was a thinly-veiled dig in there for David Moyes, the visiting supporters were rather more blunt with their appraisal of the manager, who didn’t take it lying down. Moyes stared down the travelling Irons as they called for his head before reportedly clashing with Rice after the final whistle.
Moyes is said to retain the support of the West Ham board so Rice and his team-mates owe a response, if not to the manager then to the fans, when they go to Cyprus to face Europa League drop-puts AEK Larnaca in the Europa Conference League on Thursday evening.
Moyes may decide it is a competition he could do without given his team’s domestic struggles, especially before a home clash with Aston Villa which could turn toxic should they fail to improve on their recent form that has seen them win one in six while shipping seven in their last two matches. So Rice may even be rested. But Brighton felt like more than a blip, and the captain’s response was telling. Like United, a reaction is required, regardless of Moyes’ priorities.
EFL game to watch – Plymouth v Derby
Plymouth and Derby meet on Tuesday night in front of a sell-out 16,000-plus crowd with both sides just keen to keep going through to the end of the season.
Argyle sit in second place as they seek to return to the Championship for the first time in 12 years with a five-point cushion over third-placed Ipswich. Derby in fifth will struggle to catch the Greens seeing as they are 10 points behind, but the Rams, looking for an immediate return to the second tier, have a seven-point cushion of their own to protect between themselves and the play-off chasers looking up at the top six.
Such comfort has seen inconsistency creep in at Derby, who have won two of their last six, which followed a 15-game unbeaten run to place them in the promotion race. Nor have they been impressive away from Pride Park – the Rams have won five of their 16 matches on the road this season.
“If you offered me a point, it’s 100 per cent no,” said Paul Warne, admitting that failure to beat Argyle would be the end of what hopes remain of automatic promotion. Which bodes well since the meeting earlier this season was a five-goal thriller settled by the Pilgrims in stoppage time.
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