Cast your minds back to May 2nd, 2016, which shouldn’t be that hard once you consider that night was when the ‘Battle of Stamford Bridge’ happened. Spurs, needing a win to keep track with log leaders Leicester City, raced into a two-goal halftime lead, but Chelsea fired back with two second-half strikes, to salvage a draw, and send the title to Leicester. It was a day that still tastes bitter to Spurs fans, and hasn’t quite being avenged, as last season saw them get ousted from the FA Cup semis at by the Blues at Wembley, where they also suffered a late defeat to the champions earlier this season.

On Sunday, though, may lie Spurs’ chance of exacting some form of vengeance, as they travel to the Bridge, visitors to Chelsea, who are five points behind their opponents in the battle for a top four spot. For Chelsea, the need for a win here can hardly be over-estimated, lose here and they’ll be eight points behind Spurs with seven games left. Even a draw would serve little purpose to the champions.

‘This is an important game for us’ says Antonio Conte, who has seen his side record only three league wins in 2018. It was only in December that they were in second place, primed to win their Champions League group, still in the League Cup. But things haven’t gone so smoothly since then, they failed to win their European group, which played a key part in their elimination earlier this month, by then they had already been out of the League Cup, and out of the top four. They did manage to progress in the FA Cup, and have a semi-final against Southampton to look forward to, but finishing inside the Champions League spots is the bigger priority.

The Blues do have history on their side, the last time Tottenham won here, Nelson Mandela was still in jail (albeit for one more day), but Spurs have the present, in terms of form. Not since December have they lost a domestic game, they also have an FA Cup semi to look forward to, and even without Harry Kane, have firepower upfront to trouble a defensively-suspect Chelsea side, particularly in Son Heung-Min. The Korean has 12 goals this season, including four in his last two league games, and is likely to be handful for the backline, especially a rather rusty Gary Cahill, who’s almost certain to come in for a side-lined Andreas Christensen.

Chelsea don’t quite have their fate in their own hands, but have a big shout, considering they host third-placed Liverpool as well, not long after this, and Spurs still have to play Manchester City. But this game is one they need to win, in terms of both closing the gap and gaining momentum. It’s a tiny window for the Blues, nigh-on unmissable.

Elsewhere:

  • It’s a meeting of two teams either side of that dotted line on Saturday, as Southampton travel to West Ham. For Southampton, their slide this season has been a tad overlooked as it has been underwhelming, although they did win in the FA Cup Sixth Round, Mark Hughes’ first game in charge. Now it’s Sparky’s first league game in charge, and, given the Saints’ final run-in for the season, it’s just about a must-win for the side currently occupying the final relegation spot. West Ham, meanwhile, play their first game since their co-owners escaped from the angry mob in that tempestuous home loss to Burnley, and this one is at the London Stadium again. They’ve lost their last three games, conceding a total of 11 goals in that time. There’s likely to not be much fan support on the day, yet anything other than a win is unthinkable.
  • It’s the first of two potentially title-clinching games for Manchester City, as they go to Goodiso Parkn this weekend. Win there, and there’s the opportunity of confirming the league against Manchester United next weekend. Their record at this ground is hardly inspiring, though, two wins in over a decade, although both victories came in their last four meetings, and Everton are having such a shoddy season. A win is hardly unlikely.

Fixtures

Chelsea v Tottenham

Watford v Bournemouth

Manchester United v Swansea

Everton v Manchester City

Arsenal v Stoke

West Ham v Southampton

West Brom v Burnley

Newcastle v Huddersfield

Crystal Palace v Liverpool

Brighton v Leicester

Published in International Watch

 

You could just about select a competent lineup from Crystal Palace’s sidelined players, the Eagles have seen members of their squad on the treatment table, leaving them threadbare as they fight to keep their heads above water.

But Roy Hodgson and his side have their heads below water at the moment, not least due to such a trimmed squad, and are on run of seven league games without a win, with all of their last four ending in defeat. But the latest came with at least one silver lining in the return of Wilfred Zaha, who came off the bench in the defeat at Chelsea, his first game since January. Good news then got better with the fact that the likes of Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Mahmadou Sakho and Cabaye have all resumed training, and Loftus-Cheek and Sakho are likely to feature away to fellow relegation battlers Huddersfield this weekend.

The last time this two sides met in the league, it was a different story, as Huddersfield, making their Premier League bow, thrashed Palace at Selhurst Park, the first game of a very short tenure for former Eagles manager and Jose Mourinho pal Frank de Boer. The picture has changed a bit since August, Huddersfield’s fairy tale season has been shoved to the back seat, and survival is the picture at hand.

That 3-0 win back on the opening day was one of two times the Terriers have scored three or more goals in a league game this season, and only West Brom have found the net less times than David Wagner’s team. Last week, they hosted Swansea, and played over 80 minutes with a man more, but couldn’t quite find their way through in a goalless draw.

 Both sides have a bit of work to do for survival, and on a weekend where only four Premier League games will be played, it’s a chance for one side to shoot up the table, even if it might be temporary. For Huddersfield, it’s the hope they can most of chances at home this time around. Palace, meanwhile, will be buoyed by the return of some key personnel, but the question is how much damage to their belief have those previous successive defeats done? 

Elsewhere:

There’ll be only four games this weekend, because of the FA Cup sixth round, and one of those four sees Stoke come up against Everton. Stoke have just about improved, performance wise, since Paul Lambert replaced Mark Hughes in the dugout, but the cruel reality is that they’re a place lower than they were when Hughes left, and have won just once since Lambert came in. A home game against a side that haven’t won away since December should be seen as an opportunity to end their barren run.

Speaking of Mark Hughes, Sparky returns to a managerial hot seat this weekend, as the Welshman begins his tenure at Southampton with an FA Cup tie against Wigan. All eyes will be on whether the Saints attack will come to life under Hughes, something that hasn’t quite happened in almost two years. Wigan, meanwhile have games in hand as they battle for League One promotion, which might be a distraction, but they’ve claimed scalps over three Premier League sides in the competition this season, most recently against Manchester City in the last round.

It’s pressure time for Manchester United and Jose Mourinho, as the Red Devils know they have to bounce back in the cup against Brighton, after that European exit at the hands of Sevilla on Tuesday. This is the only trophy on offer this season, and all eyes will be on what style the manager chooses to adopt.

Fixtures

Premier League:

Huddersfield v Crystal Palace

West Brom v Bournemouth

Liverpool v Watford

Stoke v Everton

FA Cup:

Southampton v Wigan

Leicester v Chelsea

Manchester United v Brighton

Swansea v Tottenham 

Published in International Watch

The last time Carlos Carvalhal and David Wagner came face-to-face in the managerial dugout: Football League Championship Playoff Semi-final second leg, May 2017. Huddersfield travelled to Hillsborough, following a goalless draw in the first leg at home to Sheffield Wednesday, fell behind to Steven Fletcher’s header, roared back through an own goal, and eventually triumphed on penalties, on their way to promotion to the Premier League.

And both sides meet again this weekend, with top flight football the end game, although the circumstances are a little different. It’s not about getting to the top flight, more like staying in the top flight; Huddersfield are in 15th place, on 30 points, three ahead of the drop zone, their fairy-tale years might just extend. Swansea, meanwhile, seemed dead and buried at the end of December, Paul Clement was dismissed with the club languishing at the foot of the table, Leon Britton had a little stint as player-manager, then Carvalhal came in, having resigned from his position at Sheffield Wednesday. Since then, things have gone north for the South Welsh side, only two league defeats since the Portuguese came in, and they’re currently two places above Huddersfield, although separated only by goal difference.

Both sides are currently above water, but nowhere near safe, especially in such a tight league table. A win here is a shoot up for one side, as much as a defeat means a drop down for the other. The upside for both sides is that unlike last season, both might well survive. The flipside, though, means, unlike last season as well, both might well go down.

Elsewhere:

  • The question: will Petr Cech ever get that 200th clean sheet? The Czech goalie has been on 199 since 2017, and ever since has failed to have any other shut out. With Watford coming to an uncertain Emirates crowd, where the atmosphere hasn’t been the most joyous of late, this might not be the weekend for that clean sheet. More importantly for Arsenal, a win is paramount to halt their awful league form. They did manage a win at the San Siro in midweek, though, the more important- if not most important- target in their season now.
  • It’s destination Old Trafford at lunchtime on Saturday, as Manchester United play host to Liverpool in a Red derby of second against third. The focus is not unlikely to be on Jose Mourinho and whether he would set up his side to be cautious, and with United above their rivals ahead of the game, it might well be the case.
  • It’s another six-pointer this weekend, as 17th-placed Southampton travel to 16th-placed Newcastle. Southampton have cause for optimism in the fact that they haven’t lost in six games, but only one of those games have they won. Newcastle, meanwhile, lost at Liverpool last weekend, a game they would view as a bye, a definite free hit. Being on home soil demands a result, but home soil hasn’t been their best place to play this term.

Fixtures

Huddersfield v Swansea

Manchester United v Liverpool

Stoke v Manchester City

West Brom v Leicester

Arsenal v Watford

Everton v Brighton

West Ham v Burnley

Bournemouth v Tottenham

Chelsea v Crystal Palace

Newcastle v Southampton

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

 

Image via Sky Sports 

 

It’s hard to fathom a game where so much anticipation and focus will be on what happens on the side-lines as well as the pitch like this one. A grudge match like none other, where Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho would be keen, almost to a state of desperation on getting one over each other.

Right from Conte’s celebrations, seen as ‘histrionic’ by Mourinho, when Chelsea put four past Manchester United in October of 2016, the meeting in November last year that finished with no handshake between the two, right down to Mou’s comments over not celebrating like a clown, Conte’s jibes about ‘demenzia senile’, and the match-fixing pot shot as well, the mutual displeasure looks to have been brewing, and on Sunday, when Chelsea take to Old Trafford, it might be seen as a chance for either manager to laud a victory over the other, even if they’ll naturally play it down.

‘In the past both of us have said things’, says Conte. ‘For me it’s okay and I’m not interested in speaking about this topic’. The fight for UEFA Champions League football for next season, though, is a topic worth discussing, as amidst the tumult between both managers, there are still targets to be met. ‘We have to look ourselves and understand that from now until the end of the season every game is very important’, Conte adds. ‘To get three points will be important for ourselves and United. The fight for the Champions League is open, there are many great teams and someone has to miss out’.

And it seemed like Chelsea would be a side that would miss out after their torrid start to the year, capped by three-goal defeats at home to Bournemouth and at Watford, between the end of January and the end of February. But the Blues look to have recovered, a 3-0 win over West Brom in the league, a 4-0 FA Cup victory over Hull City, and that draw with Barcelona in Europe in midweek has given them as much-needed results as it has done confidence, and they’ll certainly approach this Old Trafford game in good stead. They haven’t won at the Theatre of Dreams, however, in five years, and last season’s outcome, a 2-0 win for United, was probably the best performance of the campaign from the Red Devils.

‘Last season, they were fighting to be champions and we were not even fighting to be in the top four but it was still a big game’ Mourinho says when recalling that encounter last April. This term, it’s the same fight from both sides, securing a Champions League spot.

And for the managers, the fight might well be the same as well, to score bragging rights. Not that they would admit it, though.

Elsewhere

  • It hasn’t been the best season to be associated with West Brom, and it definitely hasn’t been the best week to be, from their taxi-gate incident in Barcelona, to the FA Cup exit at home to Southampton, and now they return to league action, where they are seven points from safety, and talk of this game being win or bust for Alan Pardew seems to be building. Opponents Huddersfield were knocked out of the cup by United last weekend, but more importantly, they registered a 4-1 win over Bournemouth a week earlier. A similar kind of league result for the Terriers and it might just be taxi for Pardew (I mean, that expression was sitting right there).
  • It’s a different Swansea side Brighton face, to the one they beat at the Liberty in November, the side that barely looked like scoring once they went behind. The Swans have had it good under Carlos Carvalhal so far, and are still in the domestic cup as well. A win for either side here is a big step towards survival.
  • Speaking of survival, Stoke still have a fair bit of work to do on that part. Despite beginning the Paul Lambert era with a win, the Potters haven’t won any of the next three games since, and lie in the relegation zone. They go to Leicester, a ground where they haven’t even scored in in any of the past three campaigns.
  • It’s a shift to Thursday for Arsenal and Manchester City, as the league clash at the Emirates between both sides makes way for the League Cup final this weekend. For Arsenal, it’s the only domestic trophy to have evaded Arsene Wenger in his time in the country. For City, it’s a chance to get up and running under Pep Guardiola, in terms of silverware. Thursday night can wait.

Fixtures

Manchester United v Chelsea

Leicester v Stoke

Liverpool v West Ham

West Brom v Huddersfield

Brighton v Swansea

Southampton v Burnley

Crystal Palace v Tottenham

Watford v Everton

Bournemouth v Newcastle

Published in International Watch

It’s a bit of a cliché, almost annoying really, that once a North London derby comes round, it’s described as the most important one yet. From top four battles, to title challenges, and issues of a power shift in the North of the capital, every derby is seen as the most pivotal to have come, until the next one.

So, in that vein, this is probably the most important derby yet. Okay, maybe not, but there’s a fair bit riding on the 195th meeting between Arsenal and Tottenham, especially in the case of chasing a top four spot. It’s a measure of how much the Gunners have risen and slipped to note that they were well behind Spurs before the first leg in November (which they won), and by December they were well ahead of the Lilywhites. Inconsistency, squad unrest, and sometimes, just plain erratic football has seen them tumble down and firmly rooted to sixth place, five points away from the top four. Alexis Sanchez finally left, this January, but the arrivals of Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has brought its fair share of optimism, which was augmented last weekend, Mkhitaryan with a hatrick of assists, while Aubameyang scored on his debut as they thrashed Everton out of sight.

But there’s still Arsenal’s tendency to implode when optimism takes hold, and the fans would surely have that on the back of their minds, not so long ago they followed up a 4-1 win against Crystal Palace with a 3-1 loss at Swansea. Arsene Wenger will undoubtedly know his side can’t afford the same here, lose at Wembley, and they’ll be at least seven points off the top four with 11 games left. The Gunners have an enviable record at the national stadium of late, though, they’ve won their last nine at the ground (including penalty shootouts), and Spurs will have one eye on Juventus, whom they face this midweek when the UEFA Champions League returns.

In spite of their European commitment, Spurs know their best chance of a successful season lie on the domestic fronts, and securing a top four spot come the end of the season will a part of that. With Chelsea slacking off since the start of the year, there’s a window of opportunity for either side. One neither can afford to miss.

Elsewhere

  • It seems like there’s a grudge match lying in wait at Goodison Park this weekend, as Roy Hodgson’s Crystal Palace travel to face Sam Allardyce’s Everton. It’s one in which the focus is going to be placed on both managers a bit, Hodgson having demanded an apology from Allardyce, following the latter’s comments after succeeding the former for the English job back in 2016. With both sides not out of danger though, on the pitch is where the more pressing matters lie. Hodgson would surely take a win over an apology.
  • No wins in eight. All defeats in five. Huddersfield are basically steering into the skid at the moment, the Terriers have dropped into the relegation zone following last weekend’s defeat at Old Trafford, where, once again, they showed little enterprise going forward. Surely that’ll change at home to high-flying Bournemouth. Eddie Howe’s Cherries are top of the 2018 form table, and will relish the chance to play in front what would be a rather edgy home crowd.
  • Two years ago this week, Leicester arrived at the Etihad stadium to face a Manchester City side who had recently found out that Pep Guardiola would be their manager once the season ended. The Foxes came, played City off the park, scored three goals, and earned all the plaudits on their way to that unprecedented title. Two years on they arrive in relatively comfortable state, although the absence of Riyad Mahrez is not a cause for jubilation so far, the Algerian hasn’t played since Leicester rejected a bid from Man City. They haven’t won any of the two games without him in the side, which doesn’t make facing the log leaders a particularly pleasant task at the moment. Not that it would be pleasant at any moment, mind.
  • Plus, expect a ring of boos when anytime Virgil van Dijk touches the ball for Liverpool at Southampton this weekend.

Fixtures

Tottenham v Arsenal

Newcastle v Manchester United

Southampton v Liverpool

Swansea v Burnley

Stoke v Brighton

Manchester City v Leicester

Huddersfield v Bournemouth

Everton v Crystal Palace

West Ham v Watford

Chelsea v West Brom

Published in International Watch

There was no hiding the impression that Tottenham put forward on Wednesday, during their 2-0 win over Manchester United. A fast start, and an overwhelming display were on show, and Spurs were barely flattered by the scoreline, and will know they should have added more, as they remained in touch with the top four.

And come Sunday, there’ll be an opportunity to climb into it for Mauricio Pochettino and his team, even third place is possible by the end of this weekend, all they have to do is win at Anfield. A place where Spurs have won just twice in 25 Premier League games, where Liverpool haven’t lost in the league since last April, the Lilywhites will know their work is cut out for them. Their record away to the rest of the top six teams under Pochettino is barely any good as well, with nine points since 2014, a record that has one win in it.

Liverpool have done well to respond to those league (Swansea) and FA Cup (West Brom) setbacks with a comprehensive 3-0 win at Huddersfield, and climbed to third place, above Chelsea on goal difference. That loss to Swansea has been their first in the league since Tottenham hit four past them in October, a result that had left them back in ninth, and now Spurs’ midweek result means even second-placed United are well within their sights.

It’s a clash between two sides of similar styles, with similar levels of momentum, and similar league aspirations, but neither will get any similar level of satisfaction after the final whistle on Sunday.

Elsewhere

  • Crisis? Perhaps. One league win in 2018 so far, out of the League Cup, and dismantled at home by Bournemouth, the ‘C’ word appears to be hovering above West London, on the verge of touch down. Antonio Conte and his Blues team (for how long will that continue to be the case?) will be hoping that opponents Watford don’t get the new manager bounce, in Javi Gracia’s first league game at Vicarage Road.
  • Southampton still haven’t hit the panic button and decided to dismiss Mauricio Pellegrino yet, despite the poor run of form, the Saints have no league wins in 12. They haven’t lost in three, however, performances are improving somewhat, and the Saints hierarchy will hope their faith in Pellegrino, alongside the winter arrival of Guido Carrillo, can spark a revival, although their patience might snap should they suffer defeat here and move to the foot of the table. Hosts West Brom have scored only four goals at home since Alan Pardew took charge, all from set pieces. Talk about finding it hard to move on following a break-up. They’ll more than take it, mind, if a bunch of set-piece goals takes off the bottom of the league.
  • After the hapless display at Wembley in midweek, Manchester United will no doubt be keen to get back on track, especially following manager Jose Mourinho’s criticism post-match. They’ve only lost once at Old Trafford this season, which was to league leaders Manchester City in December. Huddersfield, visitors to the Theatre of Dreams, have lost eight of their last 11 away, conceding two or more in them. The Terriers are not unlikely to find themselves in the red zone at the end of this one.
  • Beset by injuries, bothered by transfer fracas once again, West Ham’s smiles over the past months look to be abating. The Hammers travel to Brighton next, a win takes them to the top half, as well keeps the focus mostly on the pitch. For the East Londoners, and their shoddy PR, that’ll be welcome.
  • It’s a homecoming for Theo Walcott, as he and his new side, Everton, travel to the Emirates. Walcott has begun life at Goodison in fine fettle, scoring twice and setting up one in three games, and might relish causing Arsenal’s troubled backline (as Swansea showed) some problems. The Gunners have some new signings of their own on show, Henrikh Mkhitaryan might make his first league start for the club, although Arsene Wenger says illness could delay Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang making his debut. The history books rarely favour the Toffees in this one, they’ve lost eight out of 10 games against Arsenal in the month of February, and have never won at the Emirates. Expect the Sam Allardyce special away to a top six club.

Fixtures

Liverpool v Tottenham

Arsenal v Everton

Bournemouth v Stoke

Crystal Palace v Newcastle

Manchester United v Huddersfield

West Brom v Southampton

Leicester v Swansea

Brighton v West Ham

Burnley v Manchester City

Watford v Chelsea

Published in International Watch