1) Hornets are unlikely to sting tired Reds
With Trent Alexander-Arnold injured, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane still recovering physically and emotionally from Tuesday’s World Cup qualifier play-off in Dakar – complete with extra time, penalties and laser beams – several South Americans came back late from distant internationals and the first leg of a Champions League quarter-final set to take place on Tuesday, there could hardly be a better time for a plucky underdog to show up at Anfield. But even taking into account the huge advantages the division’s leading clubs have over the upstart, Watford’s record on their turf is appalling: in all competitions since 1990, the Hornets have made a total of 38 appearances against Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United, which equates to a full peak season (albeit one with a particularly savage roster). In this fictional season, they have earned a total of six points at Anfield under Graham Taylor in 1999, with 34 defeats and a single win. SB
2) Will England show lift Maguire?
Harry Maguire made headlines during the international break, but not for his excellent pass that helped score England’s second goal against the Ivory Coast or his solid all-round performance. Gareth Southgate was unusually sharp after that game when he called the central defender’s jeers at Wembley a “joke”, and Maguire’s creditable display won’t break his confidence. Playing for Manchester United seems to be a different matter though, and perhaps one of the problems is that his club team-mates often miss the quality of movement Ollie Watkins showed when receiving the aforementioned pass for England, before setting up Raheem Sterling to play for Manchester United. score on the second try. Maguire may be happy to see his old team-mate Jamie Vardy out due to a knee injury: Vardy has the kind of pace Maguire can uncover when turned, but the defender’s form for the national squad shows what he’s capable of as part of a well-coached and close-knit team. LM
3) A less chaotic Leeds with Phillips
After late smash-and-grapes against Norwich and Wolves in the run-up to the international break, Leeds fans have had two weeks to calm down and hope for a significantly less stressful encounter when Southampton visits Elland Road. A combination of Covid, injuries and suspension meant that Stuart Dallas and Dan James were the only two regulars on the Leeds first team for international duty. That will have given Jesse Marsch a welcome time to team up with most of the squad he plans to send out to meet visitors who have lost four consecutive games in all competitions. Coincidentally, Leeds played Southampton right after the October international break, losing 1-0 at St Mary’s. Out of the physio room and on the bench against Wolves, Kalvin Phillips has announced his intention to sign a contract extension amid interest from Manchester United, Liverpool and Aston Villa. The defensive midfielder is likely to make his first appearance since early December. BG
4) Nørgaard to give Kanté a lesson?
Chelsea finally get the chance to see someone who is truly exceptional at tackling and interception: while N’Golo Kanté, their famous interrupter, is a sad 110th for interceptions and a miserable 72nd for tackles this season, Christian Nørgaard was the best in the game. League. effective midfielder, ranked first for tackles, first for successful tackles, second for successful urgent actions, and second (or fourth, depending on whose stats you’re looking at) for interceptions. Brentford’s opponents generally have a lot more of the ball than Chelsea, giving him more opportunities to show his ball-winning skills, but still. Referee Chris Kavanagh takes charge of his seventh Brentford game, of which they have won 29% (those two wins are the last two he has led, including last season’s Championship play-off final). Chelsea, meanwhile, has won a statistically improbable 91% of the 11 Blues matches he has headed. SB
5) Spurs continue with the top four
Tottenham knocked West Ham apart in their previous Premier League game, a result that appears to have easily knocked the Hammers out of the top four. Harry Kane pulled the strings that day, shaping up in a match-winning performance for England against Switzerland, and if the attacker can continue to tie up Son Heung-min as well as he did recently, Champions League qualification is fully achievable for fifth-placed Spurs . Arsenal currently occupy fourth place – three points ahead of Antonio Conte’s men with a game in hand – but face a more difficult run-up, including trips to Chelsea, West Ham and Spurs, and a home game against Manchester United. A Contefied Tottenham looks set to have every chance of beating their North London rivals. Disasters aside, Newcastle already looks safe, and perhaps Eddie Howe’s biggest headache — aside from those persistent questions about human rights in Saudi Arabia — is how to fit Joe Willock, Jonjo Shelvey, Joelinton and Bruno Guimarães on the same side. LM
6) Long to get overdue call to City
Turf Moor will organize a gathering of teams with their thoughts on larger occasions. City will host Liverpool and Atletico Madrid in between this weekend, while Burnley are about to start the most important week of their season, with games against Everton and Norwich. Given those games and the fact that they have lost their last nine games to Manchester City with a total score of 32-1, it is unlikely that Sean Dyche will risk a player’s eligibility for this match. This means Ben Mee will likely miss and Kevin Long, who has spent 1,710 Premier League minutes on the bench this season and not one on the pitch, and his first senior appearance of any kind since last February. At the time, Long signed a new contract, starting against Fulham and gleefully declaring “the manager here likes me”. SB
7) A return to two up front for Villa?
Aston Villa were unimpressive in their defeat to Arsenal in their most recent top-flight game, a match in which Danny Ings was dropped to make way for an extra midfielder in Emi Buendía. With Wolves manager Bruno Lage favoring a back three, Ings will likely return to partner Ollie Watkins up front, where the pair will be tasked with creating spaces for Philippe Coutinho to work his magic. Watkins and John McGinn both scored in caps for England and Scotland respectively, while Jacob Ramsey got his name on the scoresheet with a lightning bolt for England Under-21 against Andorra. Despite the raids they were subjected to in October’s reverse game, Villa’s confidence will likely be strong going into this West Midlands derby against a side that has had two weeks to put the trauma of their last defeat to Leeds behind them. to leave. BG
8) Will Lampard’s strong words pay off?
Was Everton’s win against Newcastle the start of a meaningful recovery or just a false dawn? If Crystal Palace’s 4-0 FA Cup dud is anything, there’s no reason to believe the coming weeks will be anything but excruciatingly tense for Everton supporters. Does Frank Lampard have the administrative chops to keep them afloat? Is the team good enough to avoid relegation? Has he resolutely burned his bridges with his already struggling players with the rant about a lack of “bollocks” after losing to Palace? A defeat at West Ham would be no shame, but the trip to Burnley three days later is an absolute must-not-lose. The question of whether the players are all ready to pull in the same direction – and ready to fight for Lampard – will likely be answered in the coming week. LM
9) Sliding sides collide at the Amex
On paper, this could be the worst game of the season, hosted by a Brighton side who have lost their last six games, scored one and conceded 13, but still aren’t bottom of the list. Not when this weekend’s opponents, Norwich, scored four and conceded 17 in their six consecutive league defeats. These teams are so evenly matched that since mid-January their records have each amounted to losing those six league games, being dumped from the FA Cup, claiming a single 1-1 draw and beating Watford. The Canaries’ rapidly diminishing chances of survival rest on immediate improvement: after Brighton this week and Burnley next week, Norwich is only up against one other side in the bottom half of the league table, and that’s Newcastle. So far this season they have taken one point from games against top half teams. SB
10) Saka and Zaha fitness can be key
Five months is a long time in football. It was Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang who opened the scoring when Crystal Palace visited north London in October, a match that ended 2-2 after Palace’s backlash and Alexandre Lacazette’s late equalizer. For all his qualities, Aubameyang’s departure to Barcelona has helped Mikel Arteta cultivate the kind of togetherness the Gunners showed when Patrick Vieira took charge of their midfield. Vieira’s Palace has made it a habit this season to halt the progress of more illustrious opponents – most recently by holding Manchester City to a goalless draw at Selhurst Park – and will enter this game without fear. Arteta is optimistic about the chances of Bukayo Saka being fit to play after recovering from Covid, while Vieira hopes for good news about the hamstring injury that kept Wilfried Zaha out of Ivory Coast’s Wembley encounter with England. These late fitness tests are likely to have a significant impact on Monday’s game – and Arteta would love to have Saka available. LM
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