Rewind back to a fortnight ago. Manchester City, one league defeat to their name all-season, and four in all competitions- two of which were inconsequential, prepared for a weekend game at Everton. A win there would give them the chance to confirm the league title at home to neighbours Manchester United, and though their record at Goodison had been a bit underwhelming, on the evidence of this season, victory there looked a sure-fire certainty. And so it proved; by halftime City were in command, the win already in the bag, now it was United next, but first a Champions League quarter-final first leg across Merseyside awaited.

But a 3-0 defeat to Liverpool, after a chaotic 19-minute period, had them staring at European exit. Nevertheless, there was still the chance to win the league in front of United, and by halftime in the Mancunian derby they were two up, in control, and should have been out of sight. Yet, almost inexplicably, they managed to turn a position of complete dominance into utter desperation, this time it was a 16-minute period, and their 2-0 advantage became a 2-3 deficit, that they would never recover from. There was more misery to come in Europe again, as, despite City threatening a comeback with a fast start and a dominant first half, they would suffer another loss to Liverpool. Suddenly, in the space of six days, Pep Guardiola’s men have gone from near-invincible to a pack of cards, the tendency to fold all too common now.

It might well have been different, with the ever-so-common what might have been situations: what would have happened had Pep not set them up to be short-handed at Liverpool and if they didn’t panic in that first half at the back. What would have happened if Raheem Sterling had buried those first half chances against United. What would have happened if Leroy Sane hadn’t been wrongly disallowed by the linesman’s flag in the second leg against Liverpool. But that’s the thing about what might have been situations, they never happened, and because they never happened, in the end it doesn’t matter. What matters is that City are out of the Champions League, and haven’t won the league yet. They might not even do it this weekend, even with a win, but it’s just as important to find a response to a troubled week, as they face another tough test.

In terms of what might have been, none will be wondering this season than Spurs. What might have been: had they started the season well at Wembley; had they not had that torrid run in November and December; had they not been caught napping by Juventus in the Champions League in March. Yet here they are, unbeaten in 14 league games, 20 domestic outings, but have nothing more than a top four spot and a semi-final place in the FA Cup to show for it. They are well lodged in a top four place, despite their November-December scare, 10 points behind fifth-placed Chelsea, level on points with third-placed Liverpool, but having played a game less; even second place is not unrealistic, only four points separate them from United. A win at Wembley this weekend, and they all but seal their place in the Champions League next season, a win and they keep pace with Manchester United, a win and they retain their advantage over Liverpool.

A win, also, and they would have beaten all the sides in the top six at Wembley bar one. For all the talk of how much the stadium would be a drawback (and it did start like it), Liverpool, Man United and Arsenal have all tasted defeat here, and not just defeats, deserved defeats which probably should have been by even greater margins, only Chelsea managed to nick a win in August. They will be full of confidence going into this game, thanks to their form and the fact that City look like they’re there for the taking, like they can fold with the littlest form of pressure, and there’s what the league leaders need to avoid, the growing sense of invulnerability, the fear factor perhaps diminishing, the psychological beating of teams perhaps been chiselled away. It’s the sort of reputation that sort have built so far this season, and wouldn’t want to trample so late in it. A win here and they would have won away at Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal and Spurs in the same season, a rare feat. More importantly, though, a commanding win here, and the sneers are discarded.

Elsewhere:

  • Separated by seven points and five places, Stoke’s chances of catching West Ham, not too dissimilar with their chances of survival, look like they will boil down to their Monday night trip to the London Stadium. They’ve won only once in 10 games under Paul Lambert, and have a knack for not scoring. Get one here early, though, and they might just benefit from a potentially tempestuous atmosphere.
  • In another game with potentially massive consequences at the bottom end of the table, it’s derby day as Brighton travel to Crystal Palace. Chris Hughton’s side are within touching distance, even though they passed up quite an opportunity against Huddersfield last weekend. A win this time, and they would be on the cusp of survival, not to mention the added bonus of keeping their 17th-placed rivals firmly in the mire.
  • Mark Hughes would have had cause for optimism over Southampton’s performance at Arsenal last weekend (who wouldn’t), but as they host Chelsea on Saturday lunch-time, the question isn’t whether they can kick on but rather bag wins, even draws will hardly help their cause anymore. Chelsea’s semi-crisis wasn’t helped by last weekend’s stalemate against West Ham. At least one of these team’s worries will find little relief this weekend.
  • Oh, and there’s every chance Mohammed Salah would continue his scoring spree as Liverpool host Bournemouth. Shame that he’ll miss out on the golden boot, given all of Tottenham’s goals from now till the end of the season are likely to be awarded to Harry Kane.
  • And in what’s basically a Europa League play-off, Burnley play host Leicester City. Who’d have thought that in September?

Fixtures

Tottenham v Manchester City

Liverpool v Bournemouth

Manchester United v West Brom

Crystal Palace v Brighton

West Ham v Stoke

Swansea v Everton

Southampton v Chelsea

Burnley v Leicester

Huddersfield v Watford

Newcastle v Arsenal

Published in International Watch

Nine places, yet a gap of seven points. That’s the reality of ninth to 18th in the Premier League, as this season’s ever-changing, ultra-unstable relegation battle continues. In a season where there was as much of a title race as there has been in the past five Bundesliga, the fight to keep heads above is dominating the headlines (next to Manchester City’s absurd form, that is).

The first relegation spot (bottom of the table) is currently occupied by West Brom, who have had one hell of a season, almost literally. From their win drought which lasted from August to January, the sacking of Tony Pulis and then the dismissal of the club directors, to the taxi-gate incident involving for first-team players, it’s been a campaign to forget. The Baggies are currently seven points from safety, with three wins all season, and would surely start to feel cut adrift from the rest. They go to Watford this weekend, and it’s little gain saying a win is of utmost importance.

In 19th place, Stoke are only a point away from safety, a cause for optimism, but they seem to have garnered a habit of dropping points from positions of advantage, as last weekend’s draw at Leicester shown. There have been improvements under Paul Lambert, and the Potters host Southampton in what would be described as a six-pointer. It’s fair to say it hasn’t gone to plan for Southampton this term, their decision to ditch Claude Puel for Mauricio Pellegrino as a result of the style of play hasn’t quite worked out, both on an aesthetic and substantial basis. The Saints only clawed their way out of the bottom three thanks to Manolo Gabbiadini’s late goal in that draw at Burnley last weekend, though one defeat in their last nine games in all competitions may suggest an improvement.

Occupying the final relegation spot are Swansea, even if the Welsh side have been resuscitated under Carlos Carvalhal. Since the Portuguese arrived at the end of last year, Swansea have only lost twice in the league, although the latest of those defeats was the 4-1 hammering at Brighton which took them back into the drop zone. It’s another game akin to a six-pointer, as they take on 13th-placed West Ham, who they can actually overtake. West Ham’s form have stalled a bit after their resurgence under David Moyes, and they were heavily beaten at Liverpool last time out, but a win here would take them to 33 points, which, considering the state of things this campaign, would put them on the tethers of survival.

And that’s the word for these sides at the bottom half of the log, the ‘S’ word. Not excluding Crystal Palace (in 17th), Brighton (12), Huddersfield (14), Newcastle (15), who have the toughest tests this weekend, on paper at least. Crystal Palace play host to Manchester United this weekend, still short of Wilfred Zaha, whom they seem unable to play without- the Eagles have also hit a reef, dropping from 12th to 17th in recent weeks. Brighton are in 12th place, three points away from the top half, but only four points above the drop zone. They grabbed that impressive 4-1 win against Swansea a week ago, and will fancy their chances against an Arsenal seemingly in crisis.

For Huddersfield, it’s a trip to Spurs, where they received their first lesson of the season, a 4-0 loss in September which forced them to be a little more cautious (if not too cautious). They have managed two wins on the bounce, though, and won’t be short of confidence. Newcastle, meanwhile, have a trip to Anfield to look forward to, not that many have looked forward to it this term. Only West Brom have managed to win here in any competition this season, keeping the Reds’ Fab Three at bay is no enviable task.

With 10 games to go for all teams this season, it’s definitely crunch time, where two straight wins shoots you up, and two straight losses leaves you in danger of being cut adrift.

Elsewhere

  • Too soon for a guard of honour? Following Manchester City’s 3-0 win at Arsenal on Thursday night, Pep Guardiola’s side only require five more wins to guarantee the title, so who’s a better opponent immediately after that calculation than champions Chelsea. Blues manager Antonio Conte has already urged his side to spend like City this week. Playing like them, however, seems to be a different case.
  • That Burnley are still seventh despite being unless since mid-December is testament to how much of a great start they had. It’s also testament to how horrendous the sides below them have been, especially next opponents Everton. The fees spent on transfers in both windows this season is no secret, yet they’ve spent more time trying to survive than qualify for Europe. Yet they could go level on points with Burnley, proof of how the rest of the league are rather inferior to the top six. But with Everton away this season, a shot on target, let alone a win, would be as welcome as it would be surprising. 

Fixtures

Southampton v Stoke 

Liverpool v Newcastle 

Burnley v Everton 

Leicester v Bournemouth 

Manchester City v Chelsea 

Brighton v Arsenal 

Crystal Palace v Manchester United 

Tottenham v Huddersfield 

Watford v West Brom 

Swansea v West Ham 

Published in International Watch

 

How will Spurs cope with playing at Wembley?’ has been the question asked by many after it was confirmed that the Lilywhites will use the national stadium for their home games while their new stadium is being completed. The query came about following the less than stellar performances and results from Mauricio Pochettino’s side at that ground last season, which was arguably responsible for their Champions League group-stage elimination (two defeats) and their Europa League round of 32 exit to Gent, and it was where they lost the FA Cup semi-final to Chelsea. Coincidentally, it’s Chelsea who will be the first side to visit Spurs at Wembley in the Premier League, the champions making the short trip as they seek to kick-start their season, after losing their first game, a 3-2 home defeat at the hands of Burnley doing nothing to quell the malaise going on at the Blues’ camp, the Diego Costa situation still unresolved and Antonio Conte still demanding more signings. Chelsea will be without the injured Eden Hazard, suspended duo Cesc Fabregas and Gary Cahill, while they’re still sweating over the fitness of summer arrival Tiemoue Bakayoko; although Victor Moses returns for the champions, after missing the defeat last Saturday. The Blues haven’t won away at Tottenham in four games, and have just one win in 11, but those were at White Hart Lane, and Spurs’ hopes of re-creating the old ground’s atmosphere at Wembley will not have been helped by the restriction placed on ticket purchases- some 20000 tickets won’t be sold for the game. But the bigger issue is how comfortable the hosts will feel at their temporarily new home, particularly in terms of their high-pressing game, while for Chelsea it’s about avoiding talk of any sort of crisis at the club. It may be early in the season, and it may not quite be as defining, but it could be a blueprint of things to come.

 

Elsewhere:

First big test for two new-look teams: On Monday night Manchester City and Everton meet at the Etihad stadium, in what might be a first indication of how strong both teams are. Both sides have spent big in the transfer window, both sides won their opening games in solid if not unspectacular fashion, and both sides are aiming to make significant progress from the previous campaigns. The Toffees haven’t lost in any of their last two league games here, but they haven’t won in six either.

The most unwelcome of guests: Crystal Palace travel to Anfield on Saturday, seeking a fourth win there in succession. And they could do with it, after last weekend’s humbling against newly-promoted Huddersfield; there’s still more than a few teething problems early in the Frank de Boer era, but Liverpool are always vulnerable, as Jurgen Klopp’s men showed at Vicarage Road last weekend.

The most haunting of trips: Well it used to be, until last season, when Arsenal thumped four past Stoke at the Bet365 stadium (the name’s still terrible). The Gunners make the trip to the Midlands on Saturday evening aiming for two wins out of two in the new season, something they haven’t quite managed since the 2009/10 campaign. Stoke meanwhile need to get some points on board before the pressure on Mark Hughes- the bookies favourite to get the sack- reaches altitude.

And at Turf Moor that same day, Burnley host West Brom in what could potentially be the weekend’s most boring game. Or maybe not; both teams- who won last weekend- have shared eight goals in their last two meetings in Lancashire. Don’t bet the house on an all-action packed encounter though.

 

Fixtures

Saturday

12:30: Swansea v Manchester United

15:00: Liverpool v Crystal Palace

Southampton v West Ham

Leicester v Brighton

Burnley v West Brom

Bournemouth v Watford

17:00: Stoke v Arsenal

Sunday

13:30: Huddersfield v Newcastle

16:00: Tottenham v Chelsea

 Monday

20:00: Manchester City v Everton

Published in International Watch