On Tyneside, a mouth-watering match-up, early pressure on Frank Lampard, the question of crowd behavior, how Ralf Ragnick could solve United problem, and Watford looming in relegation zone.
1. Can Rangnick solve his striking problem?
Ralf Rangnick’s decision to rest Cristiano Ronaldo for Tuesday’s match against Burnley could not be questioned. After being introduced from the bench, the 37-year-old added to Manchester United’s list of missed opportunities, bolstering the manager’s case.
Ronaldo’s alertness had previously saved United several times this season. Now he has gone five games without scoring, and Rangnick can’t overlook the reality that, unlike Edinson Cavani, Ronaldo doesn’t provide much else when he isn’t scoring.
Rangnick will need to field forwards who can be relied on to convert the majority of their chances if United wants to avoid falling further behind in the race with a resurgent Southampton visiting Old Trafford this weekend and United remaining chronically vulnerable back in the top 4 race.
Manchester United v Southampton, Saturday 12.30pm (all-times GMT)
2. A big scalp can add to Norwich’s momentum
Norwich defeated Manchester City 3-2 in one of the season’s standout games the last time they faced relegation from the Premier League. The same appeared nailed on this time around, but under Dean Smith, the Canaries have unearthed a steelier edge and have given themselves a chance at survival. They have, however, played more games than their rivals and may find their fixture list narrowing all too soon once the leaders’ visit is followed by a trip to Anfield.
A major victory would be extremely beneficial to their chances: Manchester City have not lost in the league since October and appear to be on their way to winning the title, but if Norwich can duplicate their feat from two years ago, a different end-of-season scenario could be more than plausible. NA
Norwich v Manchester City, Saturday 5.30pm
3. Saint-Maximin and Coutinho promise a show
Outside of the top three teams in the Premier League, Allan Saint-Maximin and Philippe Coutinho may be the two finest players. The chance to see both in action this weekend makes Aston Villa’s trip to Newcastle the most intriguing match.
It will also be a difficult debut for Callum Chambers, who, due to Ezri Konsa’s ban, will be thrust into a Villa defense that struggled in the midweek draw with Leeds. There will be quite a show at St James’ Park, with Bruno Guimaraes also set to make his debut start for Newcastle, who are looking for their third win in a row. PD
Newcastle v Aston Villa, Sunday 2pm
4. Burnley struggle to create chances needed for survival
One of Burnley’s problems when it comes to scoring is the creation of chances. They have few players capable of producing the assists required for strikers to score goals.
A key creative asset is Dwight McNeil but has only supplied one assist in 20 Premier League appearances this season. To make matters worse for McNeil, he hasn’t scored in 20 appearances, which helps to explain why Burnley has only won one game and scored 17 goals in that time.
Despite playing the full 90 minutes against Manchester United, McNeil appeared fatigued and failed to get involved in the game. Wout Weghorst, the club’s new acquisition, is expected to lift Burnley off the bottom and into the Premier League, but he need crosses, which no one is currently supplying. Burnley could be doomed without them, especially with a tough opponent in Liverpool on Sunday.
Burnley v Liverpool, Sunday 2pm
5. Leeds’ verve can unnerve Lampard
Everton went into the last day of the 1950-51 season outside the relegation zone and knowing their survival would be guaranteed if they drew with the bottom club, Sheffield Wednesday.
They lost 6-0, there was a whiff of that sort of haplessness in Tuesday’s defeat at Newcastle. Leeds are perhaps the last team Frank Lampard would have picked to face as he attempts to turn Everton’s fortunes around. Marcelo Bielsa’s side, who have scored six goals in their last two away games, are expected to swarm all over a squad that looked sluggish and tired on midweek.
If given a chance, Donny van de Beek could improve the quality of the home midfield, but that – combined with Anthony Gordon’s precocious class – is unlikely to be enough to keep Leeds at bay. If Leeds wins, fans will remind Lampard that he is in danger of becoming the first Everton manager to lead the club to relegation in 71 years.
Everton v Leeds, Saturday 3pm
6. Dasilva to give Brentford the spark they sorely need?
Brentford have lost seven of their last eight games, have played more games in the Premier League than anyone else in the bottom half, and are only six points clear of 18th place. If it looks and sounds like a relegation battle, it probably is: the cushion provided by the Bees’ early-season form can only last so long, and it is now critical that they string some points together.
Beating Crystal Palace would also relegate Patrick Vieira’s side to the outside of the fight. Thomas Frank needs to find a winning formula again, and it won’t be long before he replaces Josh Dasilva in the starting lineup. The explosive midfielder has been out for almost a year due to a hip injury, but his return as a substitute this week has been encouraging.
Dasilva is a goal threat and a commanding presence at his best; if he can rediscover his form fast, maybe alongside Christian Eriksen when the Dane returns in a few weeks, Brentford will have the extra spark they need to stay out of trouble.
Brentford v Crystal Palace, Saturday 3pm
7. Leicester may give Antonio space to rediscover form
Michael Antonio scored twice against these teams earlier this season and celebrated by holding up a cardboard cutout of himself. Since Antonio has been off of form, West Ham might have used a real-life Antonio impersonator in recent games.
However, this is also down to the manner West Ham’s opponents have chosen to start their games against them, sitting deep and denying Antonio space to run into. Brendan Rodgers’ side is unlikely to replicate that performance at the King Power Stadium, not least because they lack a reliable defense.
So Antonio and West Ham’s nifty offensive midfielders could have even more fun against Leicester, who West Ham have scored 10 goals in their last three meetings.
Leicester v West Ham, Sunday 4.30pm
8. Sarr the key to get Watford firing
Ismaila Sarr hasn’t played for Watford since November 20, and it’s no accident that they haven’t won since then. Sarr is one of the top wingers in the league and should not be playing in the lower echelons. Sarr made his comeback from a knee injury during the Africa Cup of Nations knockout stages, where he played a key role in Senegal’s first-ever continental title.
During the final, when he repeatedly burned Egypt left-back Ahmed Fattouh, there was no sign of rust, and Roy Hodgson must effectively integrate him if the Hornets are to have any hope of staying up.
Since the experienced manager’s arrival, they’ve looked strong enough in a 4-4-2, but their goal threat has been limited: if Hodgson can find a way to get Sarr firing within his system, his final job as a manager might just be fulfilled.
Watford v Brighton, Saturday 3pm
9. Bentancur can bring much-needed flair to Spurs
Despite scoring a goal against previous club Southampton in midweek, Antonio Conte felt Pierre-Emile Hjbjerg’s overall performance warranted him being replaced on the hour. Hjberg failed to stop the flow in front of his defence, as he was poor in control and constantly overwhelmed when Southampton attacked.
After a lengthy period without a noticeable break following the European Championships, the midfielder has already made 36 appearances for club and country this season, which could explain a drop in form as weariness sets in after a long period without a noticeable break. Fortunately for Conte, Rodrigo Bentancur can now play in the center of midfield.
In the setback on Wednesday, the guy who joined from Juventus in January came off the bench and showed some excellent touches, indicating he may make a difference in a midfield lacking in attacking flair and ideas. A start against Wolves could assist Bentancur adjust to life in the Premier League before facing Manchester City the following week.
Tottenham v Wolves, Sunday 2pm
10. The conduct of crowds
The Premier League met with other governing bodies and the police late in January to discuss the surge in crowd disturbance at games, prompting an urgent assessment. Last weekend’s FA Cup events, which included a Leicester supporter charging Nottingham Forest players as they celebrated a goal and being charged with common assault, suggested the problem would not go away quickly, and the debate over its origin would continue.
In dispatches, there’s talk of a rise in drug use inside stadiums, as well as the possibility that bottled-up lockdown energy is leaking out in unwise ways; perhaps there’s also the encouragement of a “I’ll do what I want” attitude by a government that seems content to ignore rules while expressing disgust when others do so.
In any case, it needs to be addressed: no one can claim that football hooliganism in England has ever been eradicated, but stadiums should be safe and welcoming environments for all. This weekend would be an excellent opportunity to start re-establishing such circumstances.
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