Big Weekend: Newcastle v Arsenal, Forest, Big Sam’s Leeds bow, Mudryk, EFL final day
It’s a massive bank holiday weekend at the top and bottom of the Premier League, with Sam Allardyce’s Leeds reign starting at Man City. And Newcastle versus Arsenal should be a belter…
Game to watch – Newcastle v Arsenal
Mikel Arteta proclaimed that Arsenal are ‘back to our best’ after beating Chelsea. Sorry, Mikel. We need more evidence.
The Gunners did not have to be at their best, or anywhere near it, to brush the Blues aside. Chelsea are a shell of a side and while Arsenal ruthlessly picked at the carcass, for 45 minutes at least, most teams in the Premier League would have been made to look like peak 1970s Brazil against Frank Lampard’s barely-arsed rabble.
Sunday, when Arteta takes his side to Newcastle, will show us where Arsenal are right now. In the context of the title race, their performance barely matters – they simply need to win. But Arsenal’s results are so often tied to their mood. Their recent four-game winless run coincided with a nervousness that eroded the confidence and positivity that took them to the summit early on and kept them there for so long.
Only Newcastle can match the buoyancy that saw Arsenal rise to the top. Both have overachieved this season, at least in the context of their expectations, but Eddie Howe, like Arteta before him, looks primed to push on even further next season.
The Toon have five games to find the three wins they need to punch their ticket to the Champions League but St James’ Park won’t let them ease off, or pick and choose when they turn it on. Arsenal will probably need to win every game if they are to win the title and this is the hardest test they will face as they seek perfection.
Manager to watch – Sam Allardyce
“There’s nobody ahead of me in football terms. Not Pep, not Klopp, not Arteta. It’s all there with me,” said Allardyce in his first press conference back in gainful employment. Leeds desperately need him to be right.
Big Sam will have to channel all the managers he namechecked, as well as Ferguson, Clough and Paisley, if he is to keep the Whites in the Premier League. The new boss inherits a shadow of a team, one about to embark upon a perilous four-game run-in during which it’s hard to see where they pick up another point.
At least Allardyce knows Leeds won’t get any worse – they can’t. The roused themselves for 75 minutes against Leicester last week but wilted eventually under a smidgen of pressure from the Foxes. That followed batterings by Palace, Liverpool and Arsenal, and preceded probably the worst performance of all, at Bournemouth last week.
Even the tiniest new manager bounce will prompt some improvement from Leeds but that alone won’t save them from a humping at the hands of Manchester City on Saturday. Allardyce has three days’ training to get his message across. Fortunately, it’s a simple one.
And there’s no shame in that. If Allardyce can introduce his back four to one another, and show his attacking players where the goal is, then simply not being annihilated by City might be enough to restore some faith before marginally more winnable games to come.
Read more: Leeds begging Allardyce to pull them from the ‘sh*t’ is the swerve this ridiculous season deserves
Team to watch – Nottingham Forest
The bottom five will all be banking on City battering Leeds on Saturday before the other main contenders commence their final four on Monday.
Leicester and Everton face tricky trips to Fulham and Brighton respectively, while Forest welcome Southampton for a six-pointer.
That’s the gap between Saints and safety, while Forest languish in the drop-zone on goal-difference, level on points before the weekend with Leeds and Leicester above them. On paper, this is a golden opportunity for Forest to pick up three of the points required to stay up. After that, just one more might do it.
Saints are the only side Forest have beaten on the road this season, which highlights their woeful away form. They have two more trips to make, while their other home game is against Arsenal. So this, for Forest, is a must-win.
Aside from the immediate boost to their points tally, Steve Cooper’s side need to change the mood after a deflating, late collapse at Brentford before they return to the capital to face Frank Lampard’s Chelsea. These next two games quite likely represent Forest’s best chance of survival.
Player to watch – Mykhaylo Mudryk
Chelsea leaving Frank Lampard to shamble through the remainder of the season, especially while Mauricio Pochettino twiddles his thumbs, is an odd state of affairs. The Blues should have been using the remainder of the season to prepare as best as possible for the future. Which should also see Mudryk given the chance to get his feet properly under the table at Stamford Bridge.
If Mudryk can’t get a game against Bournemouth, in Saturday’s big showdown for 12th, he should be banging on the manager’s door. So too should Todd Boehly. His big-money January signing was given 19 minutes off the bench on Tuesday night, when Chelsea were 3-0 down. Lampard has offered Mudryk just a single start in half-a-dozen defeats.
In those 19 minutes at the Emirates, Mudryk created more chances than anyone else on the pitch managed in 90. It was a really encouraging cameo, especially while he spent much of it dodging a laser.
The Ukraine star deserves to start against the Cherries, in Raheem Sterling’s place, with Noni Madueke also meriting the opportunity to build on his first Premier League goal. But, Lampard.
Read more: Ranking all 40(!) Premier League managers this season: Lampard is in the bottom five…twice
EFL game to watch – Millwall v Blackburn
We’re down to the final matchday of the EFL regular season, with League One finishing on Sunday, before League Two wraps up on Monday lunchtime prior to the Championship finale at 3pm.
In League Two, the title and relegation places are already locked in. Stevenage are also up, with Northampton looking to join them by fending off Stockport, whose clash with relegated Hartlepool is televised while Mansfield still have slim hopes of pipping any of Carlisle, Salford or Bradford to a play-off spot.
Plymouth and Ipswich are already up from League One, with a win at Port Vale enough for Argyle to take the title. There’s only one play-off place still up for grabs, with Derby facing Sheffield Wednesday looking to protect a two-point advantage over Peterborough. At the bottom, Accrington are all-but-down with Forest Green Rovers, with MK Dons hoping to keep Morecambe and Cambridge in the bottom four.
The top four places in the Championship are already confirmed with Coventry looking to confirm a play-off berth. Millwall currently occupy sixth but they face Blackburn on the box, with Rovers one of three sides, along with Sunderland and West Brom, hoping to pip the Lions.
Championship play-offs: Why we should (and shouldn’t) want seven candidates in Premier League
European game to watch – Roma v Inter Milan
The Serie A title race has been over for weeks so it’s all about the battle for a Champions League spot, with four of the six contenders clashing on Saturday.
First, second-placed Lazio go back to the San Siro, where they were beaten last week by Inter, to face sixth-placed AC Milan at 2pm. Then in the evening, fourth-placed Inter go to Roma.
Jose Mourinho’s side are seventh but they can leapfrog the club with which he won the Treble in 2010. Mourinho was on one this week when his side drew at Monza, calling the referee ‘horrible’ and ‘the worst I’ve ever encountered’. The Jose Show, live from Rome, starts at 5pm.
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