Football preview: What will and won't happen this weekend

Seb Stafford-Bloor

Chelsea vs Tottenham (FA Cup semi-final, Saturday, 5.15pm)

The big talking point: 1st vs 2nd. London vs London. Wembley. An FA Cup final place on the line. Fascinating, basically: even more so given the recent history of this fixture and the acrimony which still bubbles between the two sets of players. It's almost a year since that infamous encounter at Stamford Bridge and most of the players picked that day will be involved again here, ensuring professional and personal rivalries all over the pitch. This is how a big game should look and feel. 

What will happen: Probably a long afternoon. There really isn't much between these two sides, less so given Spurs’s recent upsurge and Chelsea’s no-show at Old Trafford. At the time of writing, reports suggest that a virus has run through Antonio Conte’s squad, but picking a winner here would amount to nothing but guesswork. Whatever the outcome, it's going to come after a mighty struggle.

What won’t happen: Disappointment. This is what we want, isn’t it? It’s been a really long time since an FA Cup game had this kind of pull on the public and, although these two will compete for a bigger prize over the next few weeks, the “concentrate on the league” excuse really isn’t in play.

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Manchester City vs Arsenal (FA Cup semi-final, Sunday, 3pm)

The big talking point: Vital asterisks. Neither of these teams have enjoyed particularly productive seasons. Manchester City’s failure to make an impression on Europe will have hurt Pep Guardiola, as will his inability to have been properly competitive in the Premier League. For Arsenal... well, you know. If Arsene Wenger does want to sign that new contract, it will be a lot easier to do so having won something first. It’s a battle for a valuable “yes, but…”

What will happen: Arsenal will be caught between formations. Wenger introduced a three-man defence against Middlesbrough, which will seem a very strange move if it doesn’t re-appear at Wembley. The question, therefore, is whether Arsenal are ready to resist Manchester City’s dangerous forward line in their new shape - and given just how well Sterling, De Bruyne, Aguero & Co. move in relation to each other, the smart guess would be “no”.

What won’t happen: A goalless draw. If the Saturday semi-final is likely to be won on thin margins, this will be more open. Both teams are top heavy, packing all of their ability into their respective front sixes, and both have defensive weaknesses which align inconveniently with those strengths.

Premier League

Bournemouth vs Middlesbrough (Saturday, 3pm)

The big talking point: If Middlesbrough were hoping for some “bounce” under Steve Agnew, it’s yet to arrive. True, their attacking play now carries slightly more menace, but they remain six points from safety with both Swansea and Hull playing at home on Saturday. Getting slightly better isn’t enough anymore, because they absolutely must win at Dean Court.

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What will happen: Bournemouth to show the effects of their trip to White Hart Lane. To be fair, Eddie Howe’s players didn’t show any signs of disengagement against Tottenham, they were just bullied by a fitter, more focused and altogether more talented side. When that happens - especially at this point in a season - the wounds can take some time to heal.

What won’t happen: Jack Wilshere to appear in a Bournemouth shirt, this week or ever again. An interesting side detail to his hairline fracture is that, even after being examined by the club’s medical staff following the challenge with Harry Kane, it appeared initially as if he was urged to play on by Howe. That might be false, but if not then it’s the sort of issue which may reappear.

Hull vs Watford (Saturday, 3pm)

The big talking point: Hull’s home record. Again. Marco Silva has won three games in a row at the KCOM (where 83% of their total points have been won this season) and that burst of form has his team heading for safety. However, as praiseworthy as his performance has been, his team enjoys just a two-point advantage over Paul Clement’s Swansea, who are also playing at home this weekend. Hull’s renaissance has actually been built on intricate, accurate football, and that kind of expression is typically fragile when pressure starts to build. So, can their precision survive the rare air?

What will happen: A home win. Don’t make the mistake of believing that Hull are simply better than they were, because they’ve actually become an accomplished team in front of their own fans. Andrea Ranocchia and Harry Maguire are an odd couple, but are forming an increasingly resilient partnership in defence, and Kamil Grosicki and Lazar Markovic have brought some real craft to what was once a relatively blunt midfield. They are, to employ a generalisation, better than you think. 

What won’t happen: Harry Maguire’s scoring run to continue. Maguire has been a revelation in the second half of the season and, despite his size and passport colour, has become one of the more forward-thinking centre-halves in the division. He may not be blessed with much finesse, but his aggression with the ball has helped Hull to become far less passive - and, of course, he’s scored in his last two games. Don’t bank on that continuing, though: Maguire managed just two goals in his previous 93 league games.

Swansea vs Stoke (Saturday, 3pm)

The big talking point: Just like Hull: relegation. Swansea shouldn’t really be in this position, because their initial reaction to Clement’s appointment had them odds-on to avoid the drop. However, their subsequent slump has dragged them back into the mire and, with Hull likely to beat Watford, they cannot allow the two-point deficit between the sides to become a chasmic five.

What will happen: Really, it depends on Stoke. Predicting the mood of Mark Hughes’s team has becoming increasingly difficult, particularly as their commitment seems to fluctuate within games. Swansea could be accused of similar, really, although their issues seem to stem from chronic confidence issues. At their best, they’re an effective unit at the Liberty Stadium who are capable of asking serious aerial questions of an opponent from a variety of crossing positions, but at their worst they’re a veritable wet blanket of a team, just waiting to be flushed down the drain.

What won’t happen: A comeback. Because of the respective mental states of these teams, the first goal here seems particularly crucial. The shoulders of those Swansea players have started to sag again whenever adversity appears, while Stoke’s season has been over for some time and, consequently, they’re really not built to battle.

West Ham vs Everton (Saturday, 3pm)

The big talking point: Arsenal and Manchester City are involved in the FA Cup semi-finals, so this is a chance for Everton to apply some scoreboard pressure on their rivals for the European places. The Champions League is probably off the table now, but Ronald Koeman’s summer recruiting ambitions would be furthered by a place in the Europa League. Yes, it’s long, confusing, and very much a consolation prize, but European football still matters to players.

What will happen: Flat-track bullying. Just kidding: Romelu Lukaku is an excellent player who is perfectly entitled to score the bulk of his goals against lesser sides. And, unfortunately for Slaven Bilic, that’s what West Ham are. They’ve won just four Premier League points since the end of February and will continue to be without Pedro Obiang, Mark Noble, Winston Reid and Michail Antonio. Worse, Andy Carroll has also been added to the injury list this week. 

What won’t happen: The end of unwanted home record. Even at Upton Park, Everton have been a real bogey side for West Ham. The haven’t won on any of the eight previous occasions they’ve hosted this fixture, losing six times and drawing twice. Bilic’s side are also statistically far better on the road than they are at London Stadium, having scored 26 times away and just 18 at home.

Burnley vs Manchester United (Sunday, 2.15pm)

The big talking point: A new normal for Manchester United? In the aftermath of United’s impressive win over Chelsea, it’s worth remembering that they’ve actually retained much of their big match muscle since Alex Ferguson’s retirement: even under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal, they were able to record impressive wins over top-four sides in each of the last three seasons. So let’s see: was that a tipping point or will their trip to Burnley see a reversion to their offensively anaemic norm? 

What will happen: Back-to-back wins for Jose Mourinho. Turf Moor will be as loud as expected, but Burnley’s home form has been quietly on the slide: they’ve won just once in front of their fans since the end of February and, in all fixtures, have won only been victorious in one of their last nine. More generally, Sean Dyche has lamented the lack of diversity within his attack and, whatever else they may be, United have become extremely astute defensively under Mourinho.  

What won’t happen: Many minutes for Anthony Martial. The acrimony between Mourinho and Luke Shaw has obscured a similar situation between the Portuguese and his French forward. However, while not quite a rift, Mourinho is evidently unconvinced by Martial’s ability to adapt to his preferred style of play (evidenced by his “give me things I like” directive on Wednesday). What a shame: another exorbitant talent floundering at Old Trafford.

Liverpool vs Crystal Palace (Sunday, 4.30pm)

The big talking point: It’s one of those games, isn’t it? The sort which Liverpool expect to win, should win, and need to win, but - if history continues - won’t. This needs to end: Jurgen Klopp has failed to remedy a problem inherited from Brendan Rodgers and it’s cost his side dearly this season. So no slips now: no last-minute equalisers conceded, no stale front-foot football, and no ground conceded to Champions League rivals.

What will happen: Palace’s state of mind will be revealing. Sam Allardyce’s task was to save the club from relegation and, with that objective basically complete, his team have the chance to be a kingmaker of sorts: they travel to Anfield on Sunday and then host Tottenham on Wednesday night. Allardyce has the chance to put an axe through some bigger clubs’ seasons, but whether he’s able to take that opportunity will depend on just how 'comfortable' his players now feel.

What won’t happen: A personal landmark for Allardyce. He has never actually won at Anfield, losing 10 and drawing three with his various clubs. Don’t expect that run to end: Liverpool’s comeback at Stoke last weekend felt like a momentum-building moment and they are now unbeaten in seven games.

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