The frantic festive fixture season heads into New Year’s weekend and there’s plenty to watch out for in our last installment of W2W4 in 2017…
Eden Hazard began the season with an eight-game barren spell in front of goal. Now he has bookmarked a purple patch of 10 strikes in 10 matches with another seven-game drought, a run that has yielded just one assist. Is his form gradually becoming a worry for Chelsea as they look to profit from any Manchester City mishaps in the Premier League, however unlikely, and prolong their cause in the Champions League and EFL Cup?
Hazard hasn’t looked entirely flat throughout this period — he helped tear Huddersfield apart in December as part of a breathtaking, back-heeling front three with Willian and Pedro — and there are mitigating circumstances for his lack of productivity, such as his recovery from the ankle injury he sustained over the summer and the intermittent absence of Alvaro Morata. But for a player tipped to be in the Ballon d’Or reckoning when the duopoly of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo finally relinquish power, Hazard’s dry spells are a nagging concern.
Although Chelsea have since won the title, the 2015-16 campaign still lives long in the memory, with the Belgian taking until Jan. 31 to find the net for the Blues in any competition and until April 23 to score in the Premier League. It has been reported that Hazard had a fraught relationship with Jose Mourinho that season and needed time to rebuild his confidence after the manager’s dismissal, but that isn’t an entirely satisfactory explanation for why a player of his undisputed quality can blow so hot and cold.
Perhaps to keep him fresh, or as a motivational tactic, Antonio Conte has withdrawn Hazard around 20 minutes before full time in three of his last four top-flight outings. Against Stoke, the Chelsea boss will hope to see his mercurial star deliver the sort of devastating performance he is capable of. Conte has already voiced his fears about the depth of his squad, and a misfiring Hazard is a problem he doesn’t need with the race for the top four heating up and an EFL Cup semi-final against Arsenal on the horizon.
Last chance for Lovren
Had Joel Matip and Ragnar Klavan spent Boxing Day evening eating cold turkey sandwiches in the Liverpool half, it’s unlikely anyone would have noticed given the ineffective display from Swansea’s attack at Anfield. But the arrival of £75 million Virgil van Dijk suddenly turns up the pressure on Liverpool’s centre-backs. Matip and Klavan are joined by Dejan Lovren and versatile prospect Joe Gomez in fighting to partner Van Dijk, with no one wanting to fluff their lines against Leicester on Saturday.
The fee for Van Dijk suggests Jurgen Klopp has finally run out of patience with his error-prone defence and, while the manager has often rotated at the back during his tenure, he will surely now look to forge a consistent foundation on which Liverpool can build convincing domestic and European challenges. It is likely to be Lovren that pays the greatest price, with Klavan presumably happy to play back-up and 20-year-old Gomez still learning the game and competing for minutes at full-back.
Klopp has afforded Lovren plenty of opportunities to prove his ability, yet the costly mistakes have not abated. As Van Dijk now takes the well-trodden path from Southampton to Liverpool, the Croatian may be wondering whether he could soon be making the return journey.
Swansea’s new manager bounce
Carlos Carvalhal is an intriguing appointment for Swansea, not least because he has overseen the worst of his three seasons at Sheffield Wednesday in the current campaign. After leading the Owls to the Championship playoffs in 2016 and 2017, he failed to inspire the team this term despite a series of passionate, and at times bizarre, press conferences.
There is little time for anyone connected to the Swans to dwell on whether Carvalhal is the right man for the job, however. A paucity of options and reluctance to pursue Middlesbrough-bound Tony Pulis — which would have buried the “Swansea way” once and for all — have parachuted him into the hot seat.
Somewhat similar to Paul Clement at the Liberty Stadium, Carvalhal knew how to organise the defence at Wednesday, but a lack of invention in attack was ultimately his undoing. He will need to strike the right balance against Watford at the weekend, who are buoyed by a first win in seven against Leicester on Boxing Day.
What next for Man United’s attack?
It would have been unthinkable to see Zlatan Ibrahimovic substituted at half-time last season and yet, as Manchester United toiled to a 2-0 deficit at the interval against Burnley, Jose Mourinho replaced him with the point-saving Jesse Lingard.
Ibrahimovic is still on the road to recovery from his career-threatening knee injury, but United fans may be starting to worry about whether he can replicate his performance level from last season. In seven appearances so far, five from the bench, the 36-year-old has had little impact other than his equaliser against Bristol City in the EFL Cup, which proved to be in vain.
By partnering Ibrahimovic with Romelu Lukaku against Burnley, Mourinho hoped to inject some power into a front line that has been struggling in recent weeks. The duo mustered just two attempts between them, however, neither of which was on target, as Lukaku’s record extended to four goals in his last 19 games.
Lingard’s introduction brought some much-needed dynamism to United’s attack and Mourinho is likely to stick with him for the visit of Southampton. The question remains of how to get the best out of Lukaku, though, and may not be answered until the manager is granted his wish to recruit a new winger. Inter Milan are on a three-game losing streak — one wonders how settled Ivan Perisic is at the moment.
Will Sanchez keep himself in the shop window?
Alexis Sanchez’s brace against Crystal Palace served as a timely reminder to Pep Guardiola of what the Chilean could bring to his squad as Manchester City compete on four fronts in the second half of the campaign.
Sanchez has performed some way below his usual high standards this season but, should he impress once more when Arsenal travel to West Brom on Sunday, it may persuade City to resurrect their interest in January.
That would clearly suit a player who has looked desperate to leave the Gunners (despite his manager’s misgivings) ever since his deadline-day move to Manchester fell through.
Matthew Stanger covers European football for ESPN and is the editor of The Set Pieces. Twitter: @MatthewStanger