Big Weekend: Liverpool v Spurs, Emery’s Villa at Man Utd, Leeds’ six-pointer, Jamie Vardy
After a massive midweek it’s a rather more low-key weekend, but there are still six-pointers in the relegation battle and race for Europe. Can Liverpool make a late dart for the top four?
Game to watch – Liverpool v Tottenham
After a massive midweek, it’s a bit of a weird weekend. We’ve tried really hard to ignore Spurs’ trip to Liverpool but the only other options on the box in the UK this weekend are Palace v West Ham, presumably scheduled for screening when both sides were in the sh*t, and Manchester City’s visit to Fulham. With City ratcheting up the relentlessness, we assume they’ll do the necessary before Arsenal’s clash with Chelsea on Tuesday. So somewhat reluctantly, to Anfield we go for who knows what.
Actually, Liverpool seem to be getting their sh*t together. They’ve won three on the bounce and are undefeated in five since losing 4-1 at City. They made a late dash for a Champions League spot this time two years ago, when they won their last five games to finish in the top four. Despite an absolute sh*tshow of a season so far, they might yet salvage something from it.
Especially since Tottenham and Manchester United still can’t be trusted to swerve catastrophe. United are seven points clear of Liverpool with a game in hand but, as their draw at Spurs reminded us all – not that any of us needed it – they remain woefully soft-centred.
Spurs capitalised to take a point but however positive Ryan Mason attempts to be, it was a poor showing, especially in the first half. After the break, at 2-0 down, they showed a bit of spirit which, pitifully, was enough evidence of improvement. But the first half stank. If they go to Anfield and perform like that, they could get battered. But it depends on which Liverpool show up. We just don’t know anymore.
Team to watch – Leeds United
It was thought the Leicester game in midweek was must-win for Leeds. They drew. So the stakes for Sunday’s trip to Bournemouth are bloody massive.
Javi Gracia’s side were better on Tuesday. Just a smidgen of intensity, fuelled by a raucous Elland Road crowd, prompted an improvement from a run of games where Leeds were battered by Palace and Liverpool, and too easily beaten by Fulham.
But Jamie Vardy’s leveller saw Leeds, players and fans retreat back into the foetal position while Leicester smelled blood. The fact they came out with a point at least gives Gracia something to build on, even if they really needed three.
Bournemouth is massive because after that, their run-in is perilous: Manchester City, Newcastle, Tottenham and West Ham. If they go into those final four games in their current mindset, it’s hard to see Leeds finding the resolve to stay up.
At least Illan Meslier has stopped chucking them in for now. And their best player this season is ready to play. Actually, Willy Gnonto has been ready for weeks – Gracia has kept him on the bench for the last four games for reasons known only to the interim manager.
“My job is to take decisions and I tried to do it by thinking about what is best for the team,” said Gracia when he was asked for an explanation on Tuesday night. That being true, it isn’t working. Surely, he’ll be back at Bournemouth, otherwise we all need to know the real reasons why not.
Read more: Arsenal title hopes ruined by stubborn Arteta as Guardiola, Aurier and Alexander-Arnold impress
Manager to watch – Unai Emery
No team outside the top two has gathered more Premier League points than Villa since Emery took over. Which begs the question: what the f*** was Steven Gerrard doing with these players?
Regardless, Emery encounters a rematch of his first game in charge this weekend when he takes Villa to Manchester United. They go to Old Trafford firmly in the hunt for a European place, having already played the Red Devils off the park once this season.
Emery has improved every aspect of Villa’s play. They have scored in all 20 games since he took over and, in their current 10-game unbeaten run, they have kept seven clean sheets. It goes way beyond a new-manager bounce – the improvement Emery has inspired appears sustainable.
At Old Trafford, their watertight defence comes up against an attack without a fit-for-purpose centre-forward and a defence shorn of its two best centre-halves. Thoughts and prayers with Harry Maguire if Ollie Watkins turns in the type of performance that destroyed Newcastle’s back line a fortnight ago.
Player to watch – Jamie Vardy
In the same period Emery has thrived, Vardy has struggled. He went 19 games without a goal for Leicester prior to Tuesday night’s leveller at Leeds. But having broken that barren run, Vardy is ready to kick on just in the nick of time.
The 36-year-old admitted after the Leeds game that it’s been a ‘weird’ season for him but Dean Smith’s arrival seems to have relit Vardy’s spark. He won a penalty for the equaliser against Wolves last week before scaring Leeds half to death after his introduction as a 70th-minute sub.
Vardy was an easy win for Smith. All season, when he’s played, the veteran forward has been isolated. Against Wolves, Smith provided greater support and in both games, the emphasis on playing earlier balls into the channels Vardy loves to roam has been clear.
With Kelechi Ihaenacho injured in the build-up to the equaliser, Vardy is set to start against Everton in another relegation six-pointer on Monday night. If Leicester have been a soft touch for much of the season, Vardy looks ready to bring back the Foxes’ bite.
EFL game to watch – West Brom v Norwich
With Burnley and Sheffield United having stamped their tickets back to the Premier League, the focus turns to the battle for play-off places currently being waged between the rest of the Championship’s top half.
Only three points separate sixth-placed Sunderland and Swansea in 12th and six of the 10 still hopeful of promotion are on the box over the Bank Holiday weekend.
For West Brom and Norwich, their clash on Saturday evening is must-win. Both are looking up at the top six with the Baggies two points off the pace and Canaries a point worse off than their hosts. Neither are in good form, with West Brom losing their last two, against rivals for a play-off spot, while Norwich haven’t won in four games, suffering big defeats to Boro and Swansea. In that context, a draw might usually be seen as a positive result but a point would do little for either side going into the last game of the season.
European game to watch – Inter v Lazio
The top of Serie A is where it’s at in Europe this weekend. With six games to go, Napoli can clinch their first Scudetto in 33 years if they beat Salernitana at home on Saturday afternoon and Inter deny Lazio three points at the San Siro in the early kick-off on Sunday.
Inter need the points for their top-four prospects, especially with the two teams above them, Roma and Milan, meeting on Saturday evening.
All three have been stiffed somewhat by the decision to give Juventus their 15 points back, especially Inter, whose domestic form has faltered badly since the turn of the year. At least they arrested a five-game winless streak last weekend when Romelu Lukaku suddenly stumbled upon some form with a couple of goals and an assist. Lazio also ended a streak, with defeat to Torino stopping a nine-game unbeaten run that saw them ascend to second. But a loss that could hand Napoli the title may also give Juventus the chance to leapfrog them into second.
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