FourFourTwos Premier League preview: What will and wont happen this weekendOur look-ahead to the weekend as Manchester City and Liverpool face off at the Etihad, while Chelsea go for glory at Stoke
West Brom vs Arsenal
The big talking point: Reactions, from both sides. Arsenal haven't beaten anyone other than non-league opposition in over a month and West Brom were uncharacteristically feeble at Goodison Park a week ago. For the former, any hope of the title disappeared before Christmas, but now, in among all the Arsene Wenger hoopla, a real fear is emerging that this will be the year when they finally fall out of the Champions League places. They have games in hand, yes, but fail to win here and they will likely finish the weekend in sixth. Europa League football, however, would be some achievement for Tony Pulis and now would be an excellent time to win his first game of the month and recover some of that lost ground on Everton.
What will happen: An away win. Although "West Brom and Tony Pulis" sounds like a combination which Arsenal should struggle with, they have never not scored in a Premier League game against this weekend's opponents and Pulis himself has only been victorious in one of his last nine matches against Wenger.
What won't happen: A viewing spike on ArsenalFanTV. Nobody watches for anything other than the collective self-loathing and so, with history and West Brom's declining standards pointing to an away win, it should be a quiet night on the YouTube front.
Crystal Palace vs Watford
The big talking point: Palace's upswing. All of a sudden, life feels better in south London. The bad habits have been broken, and Allardyce DNA has taken seed. Two consecutive wins, two clean sheets; what a difference a month can make. From being virtually helpless at the turn of the year, Palace are now a point clear of the bottom three and with a game in hand on most of the teams around them. What an opportunity to pull clear this is, then, and against a side who are likely already safe.
What will happen: A Troy Deeney goal. Watford's captain is running hot, having scored more goals in his last six Premier League appearances (5) than he had in his previous 21 (4). Added to which, he's scored four in his last three games against Palace. He'll face a far better defence on Saturday than he did in any of those games, but his bullish energy will still be a test for Mamadou Sakho and James Tomkins.
What won't happen: Expression. It's an easy assumption to make about an Allardyce team, but it's still fair: they succeed by sucking the flair from games and playing in a high-percentage way. Flashes of flair are still possible from his Palace team, with Wilfried Zaha and Andros Townsend likely providing them, but this will largely be a joyless grind.
Everton vs Hull
The big talking point: Romelu Lukaku. Inevitably, the Belgian forward announced this week that he has no intention of signing a new contract at Everton and, given his thoughts on the club's ambition, he may face a hostile reception on Saturday afternoon. Really, though, Lukaku hasn't said anything which most Everton fans themselves don't believe or frequently express.
What will happen: Coupons will be busted. Never, never underestimate the effect that inter-squad tension can have. Lukaku's leaked intentions may well be easy to rationalise for outsiders, but how will they be received inside Everton's dressing room? After all, he's essentially admitted that he believes his team-mates aren't good enough to satisfy his ambition. Yes, that's quite a loose translation, but egos are precious in football and a couple may be sporting bruises.
What won't: A routine home win. There are too many complications here: the handling of the Lukaku issue will shape Everton's performance, but Hull are also improving and, with two winnable home games following the international break, will likely consider this a free hit against a team they're not expected to beat.
Stoke vs Chelsea
The big talking point: Stoke's European challenge. Chelsea are going to win the Premier League so, impressive though it remains, there's little more to say about their metronomic week-to-week form. Instead, Stoke must give themselves something to play for. Last year they sleepwalked through the last two months of the season, assured of a safe mid-table place and winning just two of their last nine games. Knock over the champions elect, though, and they'll remain engaged and – more importantly – have a Europa League place still in touch.
What will happen: Kante, Costa and Hazard; we know the drill by now. Chelsea's excellence isn't necessarily in their individual parts, but rather in the consistency they've been able to maintain for months at a time. They're not unbeatable and neither will they prove a particularly memorable champion, but their key players have developed a happy knack of rising to and exceeding every challenge they've met. Same again, then.
What won't happen: An upset. Stoke may have a reputation for derailing high-flying sides, but that's something of a myth: they've only won one of 13 matches against a side top of the Premier League on the day of the game.
Sunderland vs Burnley
The big talking point: Sean Dyche's away record. If ever Burnley are to add to their points tally on the road, it's here. That one, strange afternoon at Selhurst Park remains Sunderland's only win in 2017 and they're without a victory at the Stadium of Light in over three months (December 17 vs Watford).
What will happen: A Burnley win, finally. Despite their record, Dyche's side haven't actually played that badly away from home. They lost by a single goal at Anfield last weekend and to Swansea seven days before, but there was aspects of each performance which warranted greater reward – so expect that pay-off to come this weekend at the cost of Sunderland's already-tenuous top-flight existence. Worry no longer, Derby County fans, your team's proud record of fewest away points won in a season (2) is safe for another year.
What won't happen: Ellis Short to sleep well on Saturday night. As of Middlesbrough sacking Aitor Karanka on Thursday, Sunderland are now the only club in the bottom six not to have changed managers this season. Lose here and Short might have a tough decision to make; they could be out of miracles in the north-east.
West Ham vs Leicester
The big talking point: The comedown. Leicester are 'back', the win over Sevilla proves it. Or does it? Even under Claudio Ranieri, their form in the Champions League existed independently of their rotten title defence – though it should be said that they hadn't pulled out a performance quite like Tuesday until then. There are signs of a domestic revival under Craig Shakespeare, but let's wait for the sample size to increase before crowning their return.
What will happen: West Ham will score. Here's an excellent pub quiz question: who was the last Leicester City goalkeeper to keep a clean sheet in an away game with West Ham? Tim Flowers in August 2000. The Hammers have scored at least once in 20 of the last 21 times this fixture has been played. Given the visitors' emotional exertion on Tuesday night, that seems likely to continue. Leicester's levels of concentration, effort and resilience were all stretched to their limit this week and they might have a debt to pay at the London Stadium.
What won't happen: Leicester to score the first goal. Shakespeare hasn't managed an away game yet, but he inherits a damning statistic: Leicester are the only team in the Premier League not to have scored the first goal in an away game this season.
Bournemouth vs Swansea
The big talking point: Relegation. Ding dong, this is a six-pointer. Both sides have reached critical turning points in recent weeks, but both should still be afraid to look down. Bournemouth remain perilously vulnerable, but now seem to be creating more chances, and Swansea are almost their mirror image. Much better going forward, but definitely still fragile.
What will happen: Gylfi Sigurdsson will score from distance. Artur Boruc, who will start in goal for Eddie Howe, has conceded more goals (eight) from outside the box than any other Premier League goalkeeper. Whether that's a goalkeeping technique problem or a consequence of the type of shots Bournemouth allow, Sigurdsson's ears will be pricking up.
What won't happen: A goalless draw. Both sides bring in-form forwards and dreadful defensive records into this game, so those expecting a tactical stalemate will be disappointed. Those who like their football cagey and tight, stay away from this one.
Middlesbrough vs Manchester United (Sun)
The big talking point: New manager bounce? Well, not quite "new manager", because assistant Steve Agnew has only been placed in temporary charge following Karanka's departure. Nevertheless, after months of anaemic football it's really time for Middlesbrough to start playing with some expression. Defensively they've actually been quite impressive, but the over-emphasis on that side of the game has made them a horribly lopsided team. That needs to change. Quickly.
What will happen: Two division-best sequences will end. This game sees a United side with the longest unbeaten run in the Premier League (17) face a Boro team who have now gone a division-worst 10 games without a win. United will travel to the Riverside without Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Ander Herrera and now Paul Pogba, who limped out of the Rostov game last night, and look theoretically vulnerable.
What won't happen: Boro to continue on the same path. If the club were in 18th place as a consequence of a more ambitious approach, Karanka would likely still be in employment. That he is not is really a commentary on how limited their play has been this season, and how much negativity it has created within the fanbase. With him gone, the players will gleefully snap their leash and the stadium will (at least initially) pulse with a novel enthusiasm.
Tottenham vs Southampton (Sun)
The big talking point: Harry Kane. Tottenham's (and the division's) top scorer is gone from their lineup for at least a month and, as was shown during his absence earlier in the season, that creates a headache for Mauricio Pochettino. He is likely to ask Heung Son-min rather than Vincent Janssen to lead his attack in Kane's absence, but neither player offers anything like the same rounded threat.
What will happen: Pochettino will lean on his midfield. With Kane out, Spurs will have to make up for his goals by aggregate. The good news, of course, is that both Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen are in healthy goalscoring form and, should he play, Son also presents a significant offensive threat. Tottenham will not be the same, but they'll likely still be good enugh.
What won't happen: Manolo Gabbiadini to join Diego Costa and Mick Quinn. If he were to score at White Hart Lane, Gabbiadini would join those two as only the third player in Premier League history to score in each of his first four appearances in the competition. Having scored in his each of his last three games for Napoli, the Italian is actually on a seven-match streak but, against Spurs' impressive back three and their rigidly protective defensive midfield, opportunities will be scarce.
Manchester City vs Liverpool (Sun)
The big talking point: Past memories. Liverpool like this fixture and they've become Manchester City's bogey team in recent seasons, winning five of the last six games between the two. It's not hard to understand why: Liverpool are built to survive on the counter-attack, Manchester City to exist on the front foot. One hand feeds the other.
What will happen: Liverpool will score off a turnover. City may be encouraged to play from the back, but that doesn't make them particularly good at it. Willy Caballero's distribution is an obvious weakness and there's nothing convincing about the way in which Pep Guardiola's backline transitions the ball into midfield. Opportunities will come and, when they do, Jurgen Klopp's counter-pressers will gorge themselves.
What won't happen: A Manchester City victory. Liverpool are unbeaten this season against sides in the top six, which is logical given how well their ideology suits playing teams of a certain strength. More significantly, however, City will have to overcome the physical and emotional fatigue arising from their Champions League elimination on Wednesday night. They looked shattered at full-time in the Stade Louis II and Liverpool are the last opponent they'd want to see marching over the hill.