Premier League week 16 preview: Derby day awaits on the double

Premier League Preview Liverpool

It’s been eight months since the last instalment of the Merseyside derby, but we’re set to have at least two (potentially three) in the next five and a half weeks. Sunday 10 December has been circled on many a Liverpudlian’s calendar for quite a while and how ironic it is that, six days prior to the Premier League clash of Liverpool and Everton, the teams were paired together in the FA Cup third round draw. Those of a red persuasion must have wished this weekend’s fixture fell a couple of weeks ago, for Everton were in full-blown crisis until the appointment of Sam Allardyce yielded two wins that have suddenly elevated them into the top half. The Toffees have not won at Anfield for more than 18 years and are without an away league win all season, so they couldn’t have chosen a more preferable fixture in which to try and correct that statistic. Then again, Everton may have wished Liverpool had chosen a different week in which to win 7-0 in the Champions League.

As if one derby wasn’t enough for football fans on Sunday, the players of Liverpool and Everton will barely have their kits removed by the time the Manchester duo of United and City kick off at Old Trafford. There has rarely been a more eagerly anticipated instalment of this rivalry, with many seeing this weekend’s clash as a pivotal moment in what seems a two-horse title race. United possess an incredible record on their own patch, with 41 games played at Old Trafford since they were last beaten. It was City, though, who inflicted that defeat and if they can repeat the trick on Sunday, they will match a Premier League record of 14 consecutive wins and put 11 points between them and their neighbours in second. That gap is not at all irretrievable with more than half of the season still to play, but the psychological effect of a City win for both teams would be seismic. Still, with the leaders losing their lustre of late, United are in prime position to do what Feyenoord, Huddersfield, Southampton and West Ham almost managed – punish City’s defensive frailties. Also, no manager is better at these ‘siege mentality’ type of games than Mr Jose Mourinho, as Liverpool know depressingly well from Chelsea’s win at Anfield in April 2014.

Mourinho’s former club Chelsea wouldn’t mind seeing City dropping their first league points since August, with the champions having the opportunity to pull to within eight points of the pace-setters if they can beat West Ham on Saturday lunchtime. Chelsea’s recent domestic form has been quite good – it has needed to be for them to at least keep City just about within the horizon – although they will have seen how Pep Guardiola’s men struggled to get past a West Ham side who have at least looked more of a cohesive unit since David Moyes took charge last month. Despite that, they still have only one point in four games so far under the ex-Everton boss, so improved performances soon need to manifest themselves in the form of wins. A draw this weekend wouldn’t be disastrous for the Hammers; it’s over the Christmas that the need for three-pointers will be at its highest.

Tottenham could do with getting the winning feeling back this weekend, with their domestic form tailing off horribly during November. Spurs haven’t won a Premier League game in five weeks and could be a full seven points off the top four by the weekend’s conclusion. A couple of outstanding scalps aside, they still seem to be daunted by the Wembley conundrum and it’s one that will need fixing this Saturday when they welcome Stoke, who picked up a timely win over Swansea last week. Potters boss Mark Hughes will have noted how teams such as the Swans, along with Burnley and West Brom, have frustrated Tottenham at Wembley this season and will feel that they are getting this fixture at an ideal time.

Here’s the good news for Arsenal fans: you won’t have to face David de Gea again for almost five months, unless your team gets drawn against Manchester United in a cup competition. On the face of it, a 1-3 home defeat to Mourinho’s men seems like just the kind of result which would spark the latest outburst of ‘Wenger out’ mania, but Gunners fans recognise that the score owed a lot more to de Gea’s heroics than any severe Arsenal shortcomings. They have the chance to return to the top four, temporarily at least, when they travel to Southampton in the early Sunday kick-off. The Saints have been more clinical with their chances in recent weeks and are motoring steadily if not brilliantly under Mauricio Pellegrino. This seems like a prime fixture in which to start Charlie Austin, whose aerial prowess could be utilised to devastating effect against Arsenal’s defence.

The Saints’ former boss Claude Puel never won over the St Mary’s faithful, but he could hardly be doing a better job than what he’s managed at Leicester so far. The Foxes are excitedly eyeing up the European positions after some excellent results of late, a win against overachieving Burnley the most recent mission completed. They will be fully confident of maintaining their fine form on Saturday evening when they go to Newcastle, who by contrast have hit the wall since the clocks went back. The Magpies were totally abject in their last home game, the 0-3 hammering by Watford a fortnight ago, and even a coach as defensively sharp as Rafael Benitez will be hard pressed to come up with a plan to foil the revitalised Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez and Demarai Gray.

If Newcastle’s current situation is unenviable, Swansea’s is downright bleak. Already beaten 10 times in the league this term, they fell to the bottom last week after losing at Stoke, this despite taking the lead inside the first three minutes. With a quarter of Premier League clubs already dispensing with managers this season, Paul Clement is acutely aware that a continuation of the Swans’ miserable form could see him join a list that includes Tony Pulis, who was axed by Swansea’s opponents West Brom last month. Alan Pardew drew his first game in charge of the Baggies and will view Saturday’s trip to the Liberty Stadium as a good chance to bag a first win, an outcome which would put them seven points clear of the Swans.

At the start of the season, you’d have had quite the odds on Burnley and Watford being seventh and eighth respectively in December, but that’s where those teams find themselves ahead of Saturday’s meeting at Turf Moor. Both Sean Dyche and Marco Silva have been openly coveted by manager-seeking clubs in recent weeks, but to the relief of their current employers, both have stayed squarely put. Two defeats in three have checked Burnley’s momentum a little, while the loss of Robbie Brady to long-term injury is a major blow, but they can still be very pleased with their current standing. They might, though, be haunted by former striker Andre Gray, who returns to face his former club for the first time since his summer switch to Watford. A goal for him on Saturday would rightly stick in the craw for Clarets supporters.

With five points from their last three games, Crystal Palace have matched the tally they picked up from their first dozen league matches and climbed off the foot of the table. They have the chance to go level on points with 17th-placed West Brom this Saturday when they welcome Bournemouth to Selhurst Park, a fixture that Roy Hodgson will see as very winnable. The Eagles have tightened up defensively and look a more potent attacking threat with Wilfried Zaha and Christian Benteke in the side. A win for them could reel the Cherries into the thick of a relegation battle, with Eddie Howe’s men losing the momentum that saw them pull clear of the bottom three during November.

Huddersfield and Brighton have both won plenty of praise so far in their first season in the Premier League, and with good reason, but both have been given stark reminders lately of how punishing this division can be. The Terriers have lost their last four, including a 5-0 drubbing at Arsenal, and fallen to 16th, and with their away form completely deserting them, home wins will be crucial if they are to stay in the top flight. Brighton have just one point from the last nine on offer and were given their first pasting of the season by Liverpool last week, so Chris Hughton will be keen to get his players back into action so that they can put that mauling behind them. Defeat here would leave the Seagulls peering a little nervously over their shoulders at the lower reaches of the table.

Liverpool made light work of a potentially horrendous assignment in midweek, but you can be sure that Everton will put up a far stiffer fight than Spartak Moscow managed, especially with Allardyce at the helm. As impressive as Jurgen Klopp’s men have been lately, they will have to prove themselves once again on derby day, just as they have made a habit of doing since the German took charge in 2015.