In a week when three of the top six suffered defeat, Liverpool and Tottenham took full advantage to gain ground in the race for Champions League football. The Reds had plenty to prove after a couple of horrendous results towards the end of January and summarily dismissed Huddersfield to ultimately move into third in the table. The value of those three points was all the more appreciated 24 hours later when Spurs beat Manchester United to remain just a couple of points behind Sunday’s opponents. It was only three weeks ago that, in another heavyweight clash, Liverpool edged out Manchester City in a thriller, so can the home side reach that level of performance again at Anfield or will Tottenham heap more misery on the Merseysiders after that 4-1 thumping at Wembley in October? With Mohamed Salah and Harry Kane on the field, there won’t be too many banking on either team’s goalkeeper to keep a clean sheet this weekend.
That isn’t the only clash of Merseyside and north London over the weekend. On Saturday evening, Arsenal welcome Everton to the Emirates Stadium with their top four ambitions dangling by a thread following the midweek defeat at Swansea. At least the Gunners managed to complete the signing of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on deadline day, an enticing coup which could salvage their ailing season. Everton had been on a poor run of results until Wednesday’s 2-1 win over Leicester, in which Theo Walcott scored twice for the Toffees. He returns to face his former team-mates less than a month after leaving north London, but will he come back to haunt Arsenal or will £60 million man Aubameyang upstage him?
Manchester United hadn’t conceded a goal or failed to win a game in 2018 until Wednesday’s dressing down at Wembley, one which suddenly sees them peering over their shoulders at the three teams beneath them. They could hardly have hand-picked a more ideal fixture to have this weekend, though, than a home clash against Huddersfield, who are winless in seven league matches, a run that has seen then drop to just outside the relegation places. After a fine start to the season, the highlight of which was their win over United in October, the Terriers have fallen back to where most pundits expected them to be. They could be in for a tough afternoon against a United team with a point to prove after their abject defeat to Spurs.
Victory for Manchester City on Saturday lunchtime would, for a few hours at least, give them an 18-point lead at the top of the table with only 36 more to play for after that. Since their defeat at Anfield in mid-January, the leaders have found their stride again and they come up against a Burnley team whose excellent start to the season is becoming a faded memory. The Clarets would need to completely collapse if they were to find themselves in a relegation battle, but the hopeful talk of Europe a couple of months ago has given way to a slump that has seen then drop to eighth and realistically looking at mid-table consolidation. They have turned City over at Turf Moor in the not too distant past, but it would be quite a surprise were they to halt the leaders’ gallop this weekend.
Once the most spendthrift club in England by a distance, Chelsea’s only January signing this year was Olivier Giroud, not a development that would greatly excite a fan base disillusioned with the champions’ wildly inconsistent form. They could find themselves out of the top four by the time they face Watford on Monday night, although they come up against a Hornets side who have completely lost their way over the winter, having given Chelsea a very good game at Stamford Bridge earlier in the season. The standings might show Watford in a seemingly healthy mid-table position, but so clustered is the bottom half that relegation fears are very real around Vicarage Road. This is a meeting of two teams badly in need of an upturn in fortunes.
What now for Riyad Mahrez after his attempts to engineer a move to Manchester City fell through? It was two years ago this weekend that he inspired Leicester to a defining 3-1 win against the current league leaders, a result which went a long way towards the Foxes winning the title, but he could be in for a very frosty reception if he features on Saturday against Swansea. Leicester had been in fine form over the winter but their momentum was checked by defeat at Everton in midweek, while the Mahrez saga might yet have a debilitating effect on their season. Swansea, on the other hand, seem revitalised under Carlos Carvalhal, with recent wins over Liverpool and Arsenal suggesting that they have plenty of stomach for a fight for Premier League survival.
The Swans’ win over Arsenal on Tuesday saw West Brom take their place at the bottom of the table, even though the Baggies have been improving of late performance-wise. They were outclassed by Manchester City in midweek, but so has almost every other team in the league, while the FA Cup win over Liverpool and loan signing of Daniel Sturridge from the Reds have given them cause for optimism. Also, striker Jay Rodriguez has rediscovered his scoring touch and he could put it to good use against his former club Southampton on Saturday. The Saints find themselves in the bottom three and could really do with a player in the prolific form that their former hero Rodriguez is showing, such are their troubles in front of goal.
When Newcastle beat Crystal Palace in October, it was very hard to envisage that they wouldn’t win another home league game in the following three and a half months, nor that the Londoners would have overtaken them in the table by the time this weekend’s fixture came around. In a meeting of two former Liverpool managers, it is the much-maligned Roy Hodgson who finds himself in a better position than Rafael Benitez. Indeed, the Eagles were rock bottom when these teams met earlier in the season, but a win at Selhurst Park on Sunday could see them climb into the top half. Newcastle will hope that loan signing Islam Slimani can be the reliable goalscorer they desperately need if they are to avoid an immediate return to the Championship, a scenario that is very much possible as things stand.
Bournemouth are the type of team who could look desperate against some of the Premier League’s lesser lights but are always good to cause trouble for high-profile opposition, as they emphatically did to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday. That win saw them move into the top 10 ahead of Saturday’s home fixture against Stoke, who have managed to stop a very worrying rot in Paul Lambert’s first couple of games in charge. The Cherries won the reverse fixture back in October and are the team in form ahead of this weekend’s clash.
By contrast, their south coast neighbours Brighton have dropped alarmingly into the thick of the relegation picture and while a draw at Southampton was a decent point to pick up, they could do with getting back to winning ways at home to West Ham on Saturday. The Seagulls would be marooned at the bottom of the table were it not for their ability to get results at the Amex Stadium, with October’s win over the Hammers one of the rare occasions that they enjoyed an away day. The Londoners have improved vastly since then and their last away match saw them smash four past Huddersfield, so they will be a very different proposition to the team that rolled over against Brighton a few months back.
Liverpool fans will hope that their team will be just as different a proposition for Spurs to the side who folded at Wembley in October. Sunday’s clash at Anfield has the potential to be one of the games of the season, given the attacking flair on both sides. A Liverpool win would put them five points ahead of their rivals and strengthen their grip on a place in next season’s Champions League. That would be quite a way to banish the woes of the recent FA Cup exit.