Game to watch – Tottenham v Arsenal
Prepare your controversial combined XIs missing THIS Tottenham player, ask some assorted pundits how many Arsenal players would be worthy of a place in the opposite side, and crack open a nearby window in preparation for some form-book tossing, because a north London derby is on the horizon.
Given the nature of midweek Premier League football continuing into the late hours of Thursday evening, this one does rather feel as though it has crept up on us. And yet, no sooner had either side eked out a victory against difficult opposition on Wednesday, attention turned to Sunday.
Arsene Wenger insisted that ending Tottenham’s title hopes once and for all was no motivating factor for Arsenal. “Sport is great. But you are never happy when others do badly and you do badly,” said the Frenchman after a 1-0 win over Leicester left them four points behind fourth-placed Manchester City. Thursday’s derby draw extended that gap to five points.
Mauricio Pochettino was adamant that finishing above Arsenal for the first time in 22 years was no incentive for Tottenham. “Our challenge is to reduce the gap with Chelsea and think of bigger things than only to be above Arsenal,” said the Argentinean after a 1-0 win over Crystal Palace left them four points behind the table-topping Blues.
Both have bigger fish to fry than each other, and yet it is no salmon-like leap to suggest that while Sunday’s game is seen as just another fixture in a packed schedule, defeat for either side could end their season.
Tottenham have five games left in the race to catch Chelsea, and know they can afford no slip ups. They have won their last eight in the Premier League, be that by thrashing sides and imposing their dominance in 4-0 wins over Stoke, Watford and Bournemouth, or battling to ugly victories, such as the 1-0 defeat of Crystal Palace.
As for Arsenal, their room for error has been closed for refurbishments. They are four and five points behind Manchesters United and City respectively, having played a game fewer than both. The three-man defensive formation has galvanised the Gunners to an extent, but this is its biggest test yet, and one it cannot afford to fail.
It is almost a foregone conclusion at this point, and a mere subplot in this clash, but a victory for Tottenham would confirm the cancellation of St Totteringham’s Day for the first time since Wenger was appointed.
The very least we can hope for in the final north London derby at White Hart Lane is that there will be a decisive victor either way. Tottenham and Arsenal have played a combined 43 games in all competitions since the turn of the year; only five have ended in a draw. A point serves the ambitions of neither side; both must surely go for the win.
Player to watch – Romelu Lukaku
It will be described as an audition by many, but Romelu Lukaku might already have landed the part. If transfer gossip columns are to be believed – and they absolutely, definitely, undoubtedly are – Chelsea will move for their former striker regardless of how well he performs on Sunday.
For Lukaku however, there is a motivation. A meeting with Chelsea at Goodison Park provides a chance to put the final doubts surrounding his suitability to rest once and for all.
You see, leading the Premier League goalscoring charts with 24 strikes is not enough for some, nor is boasting 144 career goals by the age of 23. Until Lukaku does it against the elite, the critics will continue to voice their opinion.
A record of 16 goals in 55 Premier League games against Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham is neither terrific nor terrible. A rate of 0.29 goals per game is comparable to Diego Costa’s 0.33 from seven goals in 21 games against those same teams – minus Chelsea of course.
But Lukaku, fiercely ambitious as he is, will be the first to admit that he perhaps needs a seminal performance against a leading light. Everton have won their last eight Premier League games at Goodison Park, with Lukaku scoring 13 goals, and at least one in each fixture. Extend that record, and the invitation to return to Stamford Bridge will be signed, sealed and delivered come the summer.
Team to watch – Sunderland
In the 2012/13 season, Sunderland reacted to their relegation problems by sacking Martin O’Neill and appointing Paolo Di Canio. They survived.
In the 2013/14 season, Sunderland reacted to their relegation problems by sacking Paolo Di Canio and appointing Gus Poyet. They survived.
In the 2014/15 season, Sunderland reacted to their relegation problems by sacking Gus Poyet and appointing Dick Advocaat. They survived.
In the 2015/16 season, Sunderland reacted to their relegation problems by sacking Dick Advocaat and appointing Sam Allardyce. They survived.
That Sunderland are on the verge of relegation in the season they finally stick with a manager seems a cruel irony, but the Black Cats have been on their ninth life for some time.
The club’s fate is no secret, and yet it makes their plight no easier to swallow for fans. David Moyes remains in charge, they fell to a deserved defeat against the second worst team in the Premier League in midweek, and relegation could finally be sealed on Saturday. If Hull get a better result at Southampton than Sunderland do at home to Bournemouth, the Championship trapdoor will claim a first, and wholly deserving, victim this season.
Manager to watch – Jurgen Klopp
It appears that Liverpool exist only in the confines of a maze, for every time they seem to have turned a corner they are greeted with a dead end.
Jurgen Klopp looked to have overcome the January funk which threatened to derail Liverpool’s season, and yet the same old story is playing out at Anfield. Champions League qualification is no longer in their own hands.
By the Reds kick off against Watford at Vicarage Road on Monday night, they might well have slipped out of the top four. Both Manchester clubs would leapfrog Klopp’s men with victory over presentable opponents in Middlesbrough and Swansea, leaving Liverpool fifth and under immense pressure.
A consolation for Klopp could be that Watford are still somehow 10th in the Premier League table. Liverpool are joint-eighth in terms of points won against the current bottom half this season, and no team has won more points against the top half. Failure to accrue three more against Walter Mazzarri’s side, and the relative disappointment of Europa League football beckons.
One-on-one battle to watch – Eric Bailly v Fernando Llorente
Or Chris Smalling or Phil Jones, so long as either are “brave” enough to play through injury and afford Bailly a rare rest on Sunday.
Whoever Jose Mourinho does trust against Swansea will be tasked with silencing Fernando Llorente, which has proven beyond many a central defender this season. The Spaniard struck twice against Liverpool in January, and scored against Chelsea in March. If the unbeaten run is to continue, the man with 12 Premier League goals this campaign must be nullified.
Football League game to watch – Brighton v Bristol City
It could either be a coronation or a celebration at the Amex Stadium, with Newcastle travelling to Cardiff on the Friday. If the Magpies lose in Wales, Brighton will be crowned champions of the second tier. If Newcastle win or draw, Chris Hughton and his players still claim the title with a victory the following day.
There are permutations at the bottom of the Championship, too. Bristol City are currently 17th and almost certain of safety, but a draw or unlikely victory would push them over the line.
European game to watch – Espanyol v Barcelona
While the Premier League’s two title contenders were pushed to their limits in 4-2 and 1-0 victories in midweek, it was a slightly different story in La Liga. Barcelona continued their quest for the championship with a tight, gritty, battling 7-1 win over Osasuna, while a second-string Real Madrid side eked out a 6-2 win over Deportivo.
Barcelona’s dramatic El Clasico win over their bitter rivals has certainly breathed new life into a title race that seemed beyond them at one point. Many felt that their Champions League exit, coupled with Luis Enrique’s impending departure, could derail their bid. Not so, as Barca top the table by goal difference, albeit having played one game more than Real.
Zinedine Zidane’s side play host to Valencia, who beat them earlier this season, but Spain’s most eye-catching fixture will be played out on Saturday evening at the RCDE Stadium. Espanyol host Barcelona in a bitter Catalonia derby, with the added motive of ending their rivals’ title hopes.
Where is Mike Dean this week?
Residing at his palace in the Wirral from Monday to Friday, before popping down to St Mary’s to grace the south coast with his presence as Southampton host Hull.
I’m not Daniel Storey, so I’m not writing a limerick. Sorry.
Ten live matches to watch (because it’s started raining again and it’s April)
Cardiff v Newcastle (Friday, 19.45, Sky Sports 1)
Rangers v Celtic (Saturday, 12.00, Sky Sports 1)
Crystal Palace v Burnley (Saturday, 17.30, BT Sport 1)
Brighton v Bristol City (Saturday, 17.30, Sky Sports 1)
Espanyol v Barcelona (Saturday, 19.45, Sky Sports 2)
Roma v Lazio (Sunday, 11.30, BT Sport 3)
Manchester United v Swansea (Sunday, 12.00, BT Sport 1)
Bolton v Peterborough (Sunday, 12.00, Sky Sports 2)
Everton v Chelsea (Sunday, 14.05, Sky Sports 1)
Tottenham v Arsenal (Sunday, 16.30, Sky Sports 1)
Writer to watch – Matt Stead