W2W4 previews the weekend’s Premier League action by highlighting its most compelling storylines …
Arsenal-Chelsea fascinating for unusual reasons
There was a time when you could pretty much guarantee at least one of Chelsea or Arsenal would be challenging for the Premier League title. But the two teams meet each other Saturday evening a long way from the top of the table and with both in some vague form of existential woe.
Arsenal’s brave new world of holistic decision-making appears to be stalling, at best. Sven Mislintat is on his way out of the club, the new regime having signed a few potential gems but made significant messes of the Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey situations. Then of course there’s the minor detail of results: Last week’s defeat to West Ham left them probably needing to beat Chelsea, or at least avoid defeat, to make Champions League qualification something other than a monumental struggle.
Meanwhile, Maurizio Sarri’s prediction after his arrival that it would take his Chelsea players three months to get used to his methods now looks optimistic. This might be in part down to the decline in performance of his conductor, Jorginho, who Sarri declared has looked exhausted in recent weeks. But with Cesc Fabregas gone, he purports to have no alternative. Whether you believe that or not is another matter; there are a few internal options who could fill in for a few games, but either way Chelsea’s performances have not quite been what their manager wants.
These teams meet each other in the middle of transitional seasons, both trying to figure out their respective new worlds. This game might not mean much in the title race, but it will still be fascinating given the state of affairs at each club.
Will Spurs use their ‘Plan C’?
Convincing a striker to move to Tottenham must be a tough job. “How do you fancy sitting on the bench for most league games because we’ve got probably the best centre-forward in the world? You might get some League Cup run-outs, or 20 minutes as a sub here and there. Oh, and everyone loves the first choice’s backup, too, so don’t even count being ‘Plan B.'”
The man in that position at the moment is Fernando Llorente, scorer of one league goal for Tottenham in two seasons. In fairness, he’s started only one game in that time, and has a few more in assorted cup competitions, but he’s quite a step down from Harry Kane. A step down from the usual second choice, Son Heung-min, too.
So much so that, even with Kane injured and Son at the Asian Cup, you wonder if Llorente will start against Fulham on Sunday. Might Mauricio Pochettino improvise, asking Lucas Moura or Erik Lamela to be a pseudo-Son? Could he turn Dele Alli into a centre-forward which, when you think about his attributes, isn’t the craziest plan? Might the man who somehow turned Moussa Sissoko into one of this season’s most effective midfielders conjure another magic trick from somewhere?
How will Wan-Bissaka cope with Liverpool?
One of the Premier League’s most impressive young players this season has been Aaron Wan-Bissaka. The Crystal Palace youngster was a winger until relatively recently, thrown into the first team as a defender after marking Wilfried Zaha out of a practice game when there was nobody else to fill in. Since then he’s firmly established himself in the Palace team and performed superbly against some of the best the Premier League has to offer.
Perhaps his biggest test will come this weekend, though, as Palace face Liverpool. Wan-Bissaka was excellent in the first game between these two sides, in the early weeks of the season, even though he spoiled things slightly by getting sent off in the latter stages. Most people have now noticed this smart and lithe right-back, but another strong showing against the league leaders will convince even more that he’s the real thing.
Will Harvey Barnes get a chance for Leicester?
Harvey Barnes was recalled by Leicester from a loan last January, too. Claude Puel decided that he would be better off at his parent club than Barnsley, but in the end he barely played for the first team. This year, after his return from West Brom, you’d imagine things will be a little different.
“He has been brought back for many reasons, but the primary reason is because he can help us,” Puel said.
Not only is Barnes a highly promising young player, but he fills a need for Leicester: This season, their wide options have been wildly inconsistent, the task of replacing Riyad Mahrez proving predictably tricky. It would be too much pressure to expect Barnes to manage that, but he can certainly have an impact and could easily slot straight into their team against Wolves on Saturday.
And the least appealing game of the weekend is …
When Fulham faced Huddersfield a few weeks ago, there was a loose sense that the game might be so bad as to actually be quite good fun. Thanks to Aboubakar Kamara stealing a penalty from Aleksandar Mitrovic then missing it, that’s broadly how it turned out, but there’s no such feeling for Newcastle’s visit from Cardiff this weekend. This is going to be grim, the sort of game that, to paraphrase Bill Shankly, you’d pull the curtains closed if it was played in your back garden.
Rafa Benitez and Neil Warnock could hardly be more different characters, but watching their respective sides has proved, shall we say, equally challenging this season. And given this is a game that both sides will be desperate not to lose, rather than necessarily keen to win, it’s probably one to avoid for even the most committed Premier League completist.