Premier League preview: What will and wont happen this weekendFourFourTwos preview of the Premier League weekend, as Chelseas path to the title takes them to Old Trafford, while Swansea and Hull rage against relegation
Tottenham vs Bournemouth (Saturday, 12.30pm)
The big talking point: The following weekend. Tottenham may still have Premier League business to conclude, but their FA Cup semi-final with Chelsea is now looming on the horizon. So, while there are points to collect here, perhaps the emphasis is really on Harry Kane’s return to full fitness and the avoidance of further injuries.
What will happen: A repeat of seven days ago. Watford were competitive for 20 minutes at White Hart Lane but, as is usually the case with teams who have clocked-off before the season’s end, they didn’t offer much resistance once they’d gone behind. Eddie Howe has spoken in the past of his admiration for Tottenham (and by implication Mauricio Pochettino) so will be keen to measure himself favourably, but whether that will sufficiently energise his players is questionable.
What won’t happen: Pochettino’s starters to be on the pitch for more than 70 minutes. Tottenham’s objective will be clear: get this game won, bag the points, then get off the field as quickly as possible. If there’s daylight between the two teams at half-time, expect the second 45 minutes to be a bit “West Germany vs Austria, 1982”.
Crystal Palace vs Leicester (Saturday, 3pm)
The big talking point: Leicester’s travels. Craig Shakespeare and his players only arrived back from Madrid on Thursday (after their 1-0 defeat to Atletico on Wednesday night), so this fixture has likely been scheduled with the aim of giving them maximum recovery time ahead of the second leg. They were noticeably loose at Goodison Park last weekend, presumably with their attention elsewhere, and this could well be a similar performance.
What will happen: A Palace record to fall. Wilfried Zaha has currently assisted nine Premier League goals this season, which ties him with Wayne Routledge for a club record (Routledge set that bar in 2004/05). Given how well Zaha is playing - and how well Sam Allardyce’s forward-line is functioning - he will likely be out on his own by Saturday night. Deservedly so, because while Palace's improvement has relied on pragmatism, Zaha has shouldered the burden of expression at the other end of the pitch.
What won’t happen: Leicester resistance. In fact, if Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez are even see the pitch it would be a surprise: Shakespeare will need every ounce of energy from his team to overturn that Atletico deficit, so is likely to field a weakened team. Interestingly, if Palace win it would be the first time since 1990 that they’ve managed to take maximum points from four consecutives top-flight games at Selhurst Park.
Everton vs Burnley (Saturday, 3pm)
The big talking point: With a seven-point gap to fourth-placed Manchester City, the Champions League is likely off the table for Everton. Nevertheless, they remain level on points with Arsenal (having played two games more) and just three adrift from Manchester United (one game more). Given how both of those teams are performing, Ronald Koeman stands a chance of sneaking a very creditable league finish this season. All he and his side can do is keep winning.
What will happen: More talk of Burnley’s away record. It’s dull and repetitive, but it’s one of this season’s great conundrums. Unless it’s a psychological issue, how can a team of such admirable home form be so consistently ineffective on the road? In the last few months, Burnley haven’t even performed particularly badly away from Turf Moor, but they’ve thrown away a couple of leads (Swansea, Liverpool) and have generally lacked the conviction to finish their work off.
What won’t happen: Recognition for Ross Barkley, who has very quietly become the most statistically creative English midfielder in the division - eight assists, 73 chances created. Barkley is yesterday’s news, really, and no matter how well he seems to play he remains afflicted by a perception problem. But, should you get the chance to see this game, keep an eye on him: he is an evolving player. He’s using the ball far better than he once did and he's rationing his expression with much more maturity.
Stoke City vs Hull (Saturday, 3pm)
The big talking point: The last relegation place. Sunderland are going down and Middlesbrough are listing heavily. With other sides having effectively pulled away from the drop zone in recent weeks, it’s now a straight fight between Hull and Swansea to stay in the division - and conveniently, both are away from home on Saturday against sides sitting comfortably in mid-table (with a Jo Nesbo novel on their stomach and a pina colada in reach). Knock over Stoke and Marco Silva would be a step closer to one of the most remarkable salvage acts the league has ever seen.
What will happen: Hull to record their first away win since August. Silva has preserved his admirable unbeaten record (three years, two weeks and counting) for a reason: his new team clearly prioritise their games at the KCOM. While their football is bright and lively at home, they remain something of a soft touch on their travels and yet, because of how bad the teams beneath them have been, that hasn’t really mattered. Now is not the time to take any risks though. They’ve opened a gap on Swansea, but it’s not insurmountable and so this game has to be treated as an opportunity to edge closer to the light.
What won’t happen: Stoke’s 1985 home record to still be standing at full-time. That’s right: they haven’t lost three top-flight home games in a row for 32 years (during a barren spell which actually saw them lose six consecutively). They’re losing this one, though, and with defeat will come more questions about how much further Mark Hughes can actually take this club.
Sunderland vs West Ham (Saturday, 3pm)
The big talking point: Is there anything which hasn’t already been said? Sunderland are circling the drain, Slaven Bilic seems destined for the employment line, and both teams could really do with the season ending. Nothing which happens on Saturday seems likely to change any of that.
What will happen: Sunderland will edge closer to a Premier League record. The law of averages suggests that, eventually, they’ll score a goal. Common sense disagrees, however, and asks where exactly that’s likely to come from - probably not from a set-piece, with Sebastian Larson beginning a three-game suspension. It’s now 675 minutes since Sunderland last found the net and, with another 90 likely here, they’ll be in reach of Crystal Palace’s 1994/95 nine-game record of 838 minutes without a goal. Well done to everyone involved.
What won’t happen: Michail Antonio won’t play. Here, or in any other game this season. Slaven Bilic confirmed on Thursday that Antonio is gone for the year with a hamstring injury. Ouch.
Watford vs Swansea (Saturday, 3pm)
The big talking point: What has happened to Swansea? Even before the backbreaking loss to Tottenham, Paul Clement’s players had slipped from the standards they set at the beginning of the year. They were disappointing against Hull, awful at Bournemouth and, most recently, barely competitive against West Ham. That sequence may have been interrupted by an admirable effort against Spurs for which they weren’t properly rewarded, but this isn’t the time for self-pity.
What will happen: A reaction from Swansea. Why? Because they have no choice. Clement’s cheeks were flushed with anger after the defeat at the London Stadium and he and his squad will likely have suffered through a very “honest” week. It's do or die. Hull have very winnable home games against Sunderland and this Watford side remaining on their fixture list, so Swansea cannot afford to slip further adrift.
What won’t happen: Pretty visiting football. If Fernando Llorente is fit to start, Swansea should revert to a more direct version of their goals-by-numbers approach. Clement will rightly identify the middle of Watford’s defence as being susceptible to an aerial threat (Craig Cathcart and Adrian Mariappa are set to start at centre-back) and will invite Gylfi Sigurdsson, Martin Olsson and Tom Carroll to load the cannons for his Spanish targetman.
Southampton vs Manchester City (Saturday, 5.30pm)
The big talking point: The top four. With Liverpool travelling to The Hawthorns on Sunday afternoon and Manchester United entertaining Chelsea, what an opportunity this is for Pep Guardiola to strengthen his grip on a Champions League place.
What will happen: A Sergio Aguero goal. The Argentinian loves scoring at this time of year: he's currently on a sequence of 11 consecutive scoring appearances in the month of April. He doesn’t have a particularly good record against Southampton in general, only averaging a goal every 264 minutes, but his and his team’s attacking movement should prove overwhelming for a makeshift centre-back pairing of Maya Yoshida and Jack Stephens and a defensive midfield which will be missing the suspended Oriel Romeu.
What won’t happen: An improvement in Claudio Bravo’s save-per-shot ratio. Bravo has now conceded seven goals from the last seven shots on target he’s faced and, while not a bad goalkeeper, it became evident a long time ago that he’s sunk deep into his own mind. No position on the field is as reliant on self-belief and, regrettably, Bravo’s is at absolute zero. It’s actually difficult to watch and, presumably, will continue to be on Saturday evening.
West Brom vs Liverpool (Sunday, 1.30pm)
The big talking point: Liverpool’s identity under Jurgen Klopp. The win over Stoke helped, but Klopp is just starting to come under some pressure. He’s a likeable chap and seems extremely personable, but - counter-pressing fun aside - his time in this country is becoming characterised by his inability to solve long-standing Liverpool weakness. They still can’t defend and they still concede in all the same ways as they did under Brendan Rodgers.
What will happen: ...and when you have an established weakness within your defensive set-piece routines, which team would you least enjoy facing?
Yes, that's right. Hello, Tony Pulis, Craig Dawson and Gareth McAuley.
What won’t happen: Fluid West Brom phases. As should be expected of any team coached by someone who views ball retention as a weakness, West Brom average the fewest successful passes per game in the Premier League and are bottom of the average possession chart for the second season in a row (36.5%, even lower than 2015/16’s 39.4%).
Manchester United vs Chelsea (Sunday, 4pm)
The big talking point: The curse of the ex. Goodness, how much would Jose Mourinho love to dangle a leg in the middle of Chelsea’s march to the title? What’s more, he has the ability to do so: Manchester United’s attacking philosophy may depend on Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s enduring class and they’re unlikely to actually beat Chelsea (they’re without a win against them in eight games), but they’re capable of subduing them.
What will happen: Chelsea to take United in their stride. Mourinho has, however, shown no real sign of being able to counter Antonio Conte’s mechanical champions-elect. In the recent FA Cup game at Stamford Bridge, his plans may have been compromised by Ander Herrera’s red card, but even with 11 players on the field they didn’t seem to extend beyond simple roughhousing. In theory, United can be a spanner in the works, but to be so they’ll have to improve vastly on their recent form and employ a more developed strategy than they did in either of those Stamford Bridge encounters.
What won’t happen: A United goal. Ibrahimovic is still a wonderful player, but - without trying to detract from his season’s effort - a lot of his goals have relied on the kind of defensive lapses which Chelsea don’t really make. They don’t afford time to forwards on the edge of their box and neither do they allow many central passes into that area. Obviously, that threatens both Ibrahimovic’s ability to impact this game and United’s collective ability to equip him; they don’t possess the necessary guile to be a problem.
Middlesbrough vs Arsenal (Monday, 8pm)
The big talking point: Misery. Imagine the atmosphere around the ground before this game: the home fans dulled to ennui by impending relegation and their visitors aggressively sulking over the Arsene Wenger situation. It’s a self-pity derby.
What will happen: Boro aren’t quite gone, but this is probably their last chance. By the end of Saturday, Swansea and Hull will both have played and Steve Agnew will know whether a win can take his side within three points of 17th. If that’s the case, expect something rather spirited. If not, then this will be little more than some gentle healing for the deepening cracks between Arsenal’s team and their own supporters.
What won’t happen: A new low. Arsenal have now lost four consecutive away league games for the first time under Arsene Wenger. A fifth loss would equal a record which has stood since Boxing Day 1984. Whether it means anything will be determined by how the teams above them fare, but the rot should stop here.