1) Ronaldo key for United’s derby hopes
Manchester United have the attacking skill to pierce Manchester City’s defence, but whether they convert their chances will depend to a large extent on whether Cristiano Ronaldo has lost his finishing power for good. Is his recent wastefulness the sign of a new – or rather, an old – Ronaldo? The other thing United must improve is their attitude: Ralf Rangnick’s fickle crew will need to be compact and energetic for 90-plus minutes if they are to get the counter-attacking victory that would boost their top-four prospects and make them momentarily popular in Liverpool. Failure to do that and another humiliation looms. PD
2) Arsenal out to prove they have changed
There are more than a few reasons why September 2019 feels like several decades ago. One is that, back then, Arsenal were around the apex of their infuriating form under Unai Emery. It could hardly have been encapsulated better than in a 2-2 draw at Watford, where they were cruising at half-time but were pegged back after some mind-numbing defensive idiocy and ended up fortunate to draw. On Sunday they return to Vicarage Road and the difference is stark: Mikel Arteta has fashioned a sleek, tough team that operates with control and resilience. Those qualities will be put to the test by Roy Hodgson, who knows Watford need wins now and will be buoyed by the way they pulled through for a point at Manchester United. Arsenal will not be able to relax while Emmanuel Dennis and Ismaïla Sarr are waiting to counter. NA
3) Can Hammers stop rampant Liverpool?
Experience suggests David Moyes will send out his team at Anfield with instructions to defend deep and counter-attack fast. That tactic worked well in November, when West Ham won 3-2 at the London Stadium in a victory that took West Ham above Liverpool in the table and level on points with Manchester City. Back then it looked like Liverpool’s defensive problems would undermine their season while West Ham were on course for something special. Instead Liverpool have tightened up and West Ham’s momentum has sagged, partly because of the season-ending injury that Angelo Ogbonna suffered in that win and also because, unlike in that match, they cannot score freely when Michael Antonio is unavailable or knackered. By contrast, Liverpool are on a roll and have a wealth of attacking options. Doing the double over Liverpool looks highly unlikely, but would be a heck of a way for West Ham to climb back into the top four. PD
4) Chelsea hoping for a regulation win
Chelsea might be on the verge of a new era but a trip to Burnley has the capacity to complicate their appeal to potential owners. Todd Boehly and Hansjörg Wyss, if they are to be the men to replace Roman Abramovich, would presumably like to be taking over a Champions League club so major slip-ups now are unthinkable. Neither side had the ideal midweek, Thomas Tuchel’s team being given a stern FA Cup test by Luton Town and Burnley squandering one of their top-flight games in hand against Leicester. Sean Dyche’s side need to start racking up wins – adding to their 12 draws may not be enough – and will want to summon the kind of full-blooded display that saw off Spurs. For Chelsea, an uneventful end to the most dramatic of weeks would be the desirable outcome. NA
5) Wolves looking up with easy run
On paper Crystal Palace are the most difficult opponents Wolves will face this side of Easter, with their next six games against the sides currently 11th, 19th, 17th, 16th, 13th and 14th. Wolves’ 2-0 defeat at Selhurst Park in November was the last time they lost, or even fell behind, to a team currently in the bottom half of the table and despite losing at Arsenal and West Ham in their last two games, given their fixtures, there seems every reason for Bruno Lage’s side to be looking up from their current position of eighth. SB
6) Leeds: high-octane and hard to beat?
The Jesse Marsch era begins at Leicester and it may take some time, for everyone who has enjoyed Leeds’ ride in recent years, to get used to the absence of Marcelo Bielsa and his predilection for a ground-level viewpoint on the touchline. The parting of ways was deeply emotional from all sides and the Leeds players will need to adapt quickly. One concern is that, over Bielsa’s tenure, they were coached to play in a very specific way that led previously unremarkable performers to dizzy heights. Marsch will need to find a way of preserving some of Bielsa’s magic while correcting the issues – some of which, including a vast injury list, were hardly the Argentinian’s fault – that have led them towards a relegation scrap. The American has been well schooled in fearsome pressing methods so Leeds can still be expected to adopt a high-octane approach. Against a patchy Leicester, Marsch has a chance to show he can marry that with a structure that makes Leeds tough to beat. NA
7) Ings can only get better for Villa?
Southampton’s 1-0 victory at St Mary’s in November was the final straw for Aston Villa’s board. They ditched Dean Smith almost immediately afterwards. Ralph Hassenhüttl, meanwhile, could take satisfaction from the fact that the only goal was scored by Adam Armstrong, who was given the No 9 shirt vacated when Danny Ings departed for supposedly better things … at Villa. Ings missed that match through injury but should be available to face his former club on Saturday. Southampton are four places above Villa in the table and recorded their third straight win when they ousted West Ham from the FA Cup. They seem to have found the consistency that Steven Gerrard has not yet been able to inspire in Villa. Ings and Ollie Watkins have yet to prove conclusively they can thrive together up front but both played well in last weekend’s win over Brighton. Another such display would be well timed for Villa, especially if Ings were to score his first goal in over two months. PD
8) Willock rediscovers his scoring touch
Newcastle are flying and so, at least, is Joe Willock. The goalscorer supreme of his loan spell last season has taken time to resurface but a sublime finish at Brentford last week meant that, having failed to score all season, he has now notched vital goals in successive games. “I didn’t really lose confidence, it just wasn’t going my way,” Willock said last week. Most things are panning out in favour of Eddie Howe’s side, now unbeaten in seven, and they look increasingly unlikely to be mired in the relegation scrap. Attractive though they are, Brighton arrive at St James’ Park on the back of three straight defeats and have not scored in 277 minutes; an in-the-mood Willock has a chance to show them how it is done and drive Newcastle closer to mid-table. NA
9) Will Norwich turn to Rowe?
In January Jonathan Rowe signed a new contract at Norwich and declared that he was “just getting started”. This might be the weekend when he does, indeed, get started. Rowe ended 2021 with a run of nine goals and five assists in a dozen under-23 fixtures, a run of form hot enough to propel him onto the first-team bench. There have been four Premier League substitute appearances since, totalling 47 minutes and 22 touches, and on Wednesday he caught the eye given half an hour against Liverpool in the FA Cup, which included a first first-team shot, excellently saved by Allison. “He’s a good kid. He’s got a great attitude to the game,” said Dean Smith. “Jonny Rowe has got a hell of a future ahead of him if he keeps on the same learning path.” Norwich have one draw and four defeats in their last five in all competitions, Brentford one draw and eight defeats in their last nine, and if either side is going to kick-start their season this would seem the obvious place to start. SB
10) Which Tottenham will turn up?
Mike Riley’s apology to Everton for the failure to award a penalty following Rodri’s handball at Goodison Park last week is of no practical use to anyone. All that episode means is that Frank Lampard will scrutinise even more closely the performance of the officials in charge of Monday’s clash with Tottenham. The referee will be Stuart Attwell and, perhaps more significantly, the VAR operative will be John Brooks, which will presumably come as good news for Everton. After all, Brooks proved his ability to spot infringements on replays in January, when, after initially waving play on, he consulted the pitchside monitor at Goodison and gave Everton a penalty against Brighton, although Dominic Calvert-Lewin proceeded to show that spot-kicks do not equate to goals, as he ballooned the ball over the bar. And speaking of misfiring England strikers, Harry Kane was one of Spurs’ worst performers in their lame midweek defeat to Middlesbrough. Kane’s tendency to alternate between bright and incompetent performances makes him the ideal symbol of Spurs. Everton are no more reliable, so there really is no telling how Monday’s match will unfold. PD