Big Weekend: Newcastle v Chelsea, World Cup-bound stars, Everton, Saints’ new boss, Lancs derby

It's a big weekend in the Premier League for Everton, Chelsea, Newcastle and any player going to the World Cup. Credit: Alamy
It's a big weekend in the Premier League for Everton, Chelsea, Newcastle and any player going to the World Cup. Credit: Alamy

It’s a big, b*stard of a weekend for any player heading to the World Cup. Before then, there’s business for Newcastle, Chelsea, Everton and Nathan Jones to attend to…

 

Game to watch – Newcastle v Chelsea
Back in June, the FA reportedly requested the Premier League not to schedule any meetings between the Big Six sides on the last, perilous weekend before the World Cup. The fixture computer obliged, chucking a couple in the schedule last weekend instead. But the Prem will sign off with a Big Seven meeting on Saturday evening…

That’s the status Newcastle, with their Saudi riches, are seeking, while Eddie Howe wants to go even further even faster. Regardless of how they fare against Chelsea at St James’ Park, they will spend the next six weeks in the Champions League places.

Newcastle have ascended above everyone bar City and Arsenal on the back of a 10-game unbeaten run, including five consecutive wins in the Premier League. At home, they haven’t lost in their last eight and have won their last three.

Chelsea will need a break after going to St James’ Park, especially after losing at home to Arsenal and going out of the Carabao Cup to City this week. It’s been a miserable four weeks since their last Premier League win, since when they’ve not tasted victory in four games, drawing two and suffering deflating defeats to Brighton and the Gunners.

All of which has prompted questions of Graham Potter and the club’s new ownership. The transition – in the boardroom and on the bench, from two hugely revered and successful characters – was never going to be serene, but Chelsea could spend the next six weeks marooned in ninth or 10th if they are turned over by the Toon.

The Premier League tried their best to ease into the break with a low-key weekend but, by accident, have given us one of the most intriguing fixtures of the season so far.

 

Team to watch – Everton
The midweek defeat to Bournemouth was arguably the worst performance, not just of Lampard’s reign, but the Farhad Moshiri era. Coming on the back of a 2-0 home defeat to Leicester, the mood at Goodison is in danger of turning once more.

It could be a long, miserable six weeks for the Toffees if they go back to Bournemouth and turn in a similarly inept display. Lampard attempted to head that off by pinning their Carabao Cup exit squarely on the players, some of whom blew a rare opportunity to prove their worth to the Everton manager. Or any other who might have been tempted in January.

In fairness, his team selection offered Lampard some cover which he gladly took. But the frustration of the travelling support, many of whom had the cost of their travel and tickets covered by the club but were still entitled to feel short-changed, was bubbling before Bournemouth. Against Leicester last Saturday, the Toffees were very much second-best.

Everton have received plenty of credit for rebuilding many of the bridges they burned last season when they were lucky to escape relegation. Some savvy business in the summer, especially in the centre of their defence and midfield, had put Lampard on a much firmer footing. But there is still a possibility they could break for the World Cup back in the bottom three. The best they could hope for if they lose again at Bournemouth is 17th. Much of the talk of progress would be moot if they are to spend the next six weeks in or teetering above the relegation zone.

 

Manager to watch – Nathan Jones
Julen Lopetegui was appointed before Southampton swooped for Jones but Wolves had the good sense to give the Spaniard the six-week World Cup break to sort out his new squad before exposing him to the Premier League. Saints can’t afford to be quite so patient. Jones’ first task after replacing the Alpine Klopp is a trip to meet the real one.

Saints travel to Liverpool on Saturday while languishing in the relegation zone in the wake of last Sunday’s humping at the hands of Newcastle. The Magpies didn’t have to play well to thrash Saints, who were little better while squeezing past Sheffield Wednesday in the Carabao Cup on Wednesday night.

Jones was in the St Mary’s stands to see for himself the size of the task that lay ahead. His priorities, in no particular order: tease some potency from his forward line; establish a settled shape and structure; and lift the mood around the Saints.

The ex-Luton boss has two training sessions before Liverpool. Good luck, fella.

Jones isn’t the first new manager this season to start his regime at Anfield. Roberto Di Zerbi took Brighton to meet Liverpool in his first game and the Seagulls should have won. But the Brighton and Saints jobs are two entirely different propositions. It’s hardly must-win for Southampton and Jones, but if not points to lift them out of the bottom three, Saints simply must take some positives from their final game to sustain them through a barren six weeks.

New Southampton manager Nathan Jones in the stands during a match Credit: Alamy
New Southampton manager Nathan Jones in the stands during a match Credit: Alamy

Player to watch – Any internationals going to the World Cup
This is arguably the weirdest weekend of a mental season. A mid-season break for the World Cup is unsettling for all of us. For the players selected to represent their nations on the biggest stage of all, this matchday is an absolute headf*ck.

Already too many players have seen their dreams crushed by a horribly timed twang, twist or bang. Every major tournament is missing big stars because of injury but this one is different. There is usually a month or so between the end of the club season and the start of the World Cup, enough time to recover from the usual knocks and knacks. Ahead of the kick-off in Qatar, for some, there isn’t even a week. Any twinges this weekend will have players fearing the worst.

It is the clubs who cough up for their huge wages and until Saturday or Sunday night, that is where the players’ loyalty lies. But would you really blame anyone bound for Qatar if they sought reason to swerve one last shift which could derail their hopes and dreams?

Win, lose, or draw, there will be plenty of players this weekend just relieved to get through games unscathed. As fans, we want everything left on the pitch, and most will still thunder into 50/50s with little consideration of the consequences. But this weekend we should at least try and put ourselves in their boots, especially the likes of James Maddison, Marcus Rashford, Callum Wilson or William Saliba and many others who’ve grafted their nuts off to make the final cut, during a relatively inconsequential 90 minutes that could be the end of the life’s ambition.

 

EFL game to watch – Burnley v Blackburn
A Lancashire derby between the top two? It’s only the biggest game of the Championship season so far…

Vincent Kompany isn’t even trying to play it cool. “Winning matters more in this game,” said the Burnley boss embracing the rivalry, the importance of which has apparently been drilled into him ever since he arrived at Turf Moor in the summer.

The Clarets take only a two-point lead into battle with Rovers in their first meeting for five years after losing their five-point cushion at the summit last week in a similarly-sized clash, in terms of importance if not significance for supporters, when they caved in at Sheffield United. Burnley simply couldn’t cope with the Blades’ second-half bombardment. Being so easily beaten this weekend won’t be tolerated by the locals.

 

European game to watch – Atalanta v Inter
Of course, it isn’t just Premier League players with one last shift to endure before the World Cup. La Liga have given their teams a few extra days off, but across Europe, the other big leagues are all squeezing in one more matchday before their players disappear to Qatar.

In Italy, their domestic stars are heading for a winter break rather than the World Cup following the Azzurri’s failure to qualify. Which is perhaps part of the reason why their final weekend looks more intriguing than other leagues’.

Six of the top nine face each other, with a top-three place perhaps up for grabs when Inter go to Atalanta.  The hosts have endured a tough week having lost to Napoli and Lecce to slip from second to fifth, below their fourth-placed visitors.

Roma have had a similarly wretched few days, losing the derby to Lazio before conceding late to draw at Sassuolo, after which Jose Mourinho chucked one of his players under the bus. They face off on Sunday, before Serie A signs off until the new year with Juventus against Lazio.

Read more: World Cup squads: latest news on who’s going to Qatar, and when we’ll discover who’s not…

 

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