THE BIG MATCH
Manchester City v Arsenal
SUNDAY, 4.30PM, SKY SPORTS
AT THE start of the season there were not too many people arguing with odds of around 8/13 for Manchester City to retain the Premier League title.
When City won 2-0 at the Emirates on the opening weekend of the season, Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva getting the goals in a victory even more routine than the scoreline suggests, those odds did not feel unreasonably short.And yet, although that remains the only home league game the Gunners have lost under Unai Emery, history was never on City’s side.
Never mind retaining the title, City have never successfully defended any trophy and Pep Guardiola’s men seem to be doing their best not to start now after inexplicably blowing the lead Sergio Aguero gave them at Newcastle on Tuesday night and losing 2-1. Of course, should City beat Chelsea in the Carabao Cup final later this month, they will put that particular record to bed but increasingly their title hopes look dependent on Liverpool fluffing their lines. And the Reds will have to do far worse than draw at home to Leicester.
City go into Sunday’s game having won the last four meetings since Arsenal’s 2-1 FA Cup semi-final win in 2017 — that’s how recently the Gunners have retained a trophy.
Since that opening-day defeat, Arsenal have actually lost the same number of league games as City (four) despite apparently suffering from a porous defence and a lack of creativity, which was again evident in their 2-1 midweek win over Cardiff.
Mesut Ozil, back in the side as captain, hardly furthered his cause to retain either position with an ineffective performance but the Gunners always have a chance of winning games while they boast the attacking riches of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette.
The fact Arsenal are 9/1 to win shows the perception of how far they are behind City. But results tell a slightly different story.
Tottenham v Newcastle
SATURDAY, 12.30PM, SKY SPORTS
Much was made of the way Rafael Benitez helped old club Liverpool’s title challenge with Newcastle’s win over Manchester City but of more concern to the Spaniard will be the five-point buffer his club now have to the relegation zone. However, if he can stop Tottenham in their tracks that would also go down well on Merseyside. Spurs would go second with victory, at least temporarily, having shown great resolve when staring a third consecutive home league defeat in the face to come back and beat Watford in midweek.
ONE TO WATCH
SEAN LONGSTAFF (NEWCASTLE): With new signings you have heard of rarely seen on Tyneside these days, the emergence of a local-born product of the club’s academy is probably the best Newcastle fans could have hoped for from January.
Enter Longstaff, a 21-year-old Geordie who boss Rafa Benitez has compared favourably to a young Michael Carrick.
Injuries to Jonjo Shelvey and Mo Diame, along with Sung-yueng Ki’s departure for the Asian Cup, saw the youngster become a fixture in the midfield in January, ending any talk of a loan move away to gain experience.
Longstaff was excellent against Manchester City in midweek, winning the crucial penalty on ‘one of the best nights of my life so far’.
Brighton v Watford
Hornets boss Javi Gracia understandably saw defeat at Wembley as a missed opportunity, having been just ten minutes away from their first league double over Spurs. The Seagulls had less excuse for blowing their midweek lead, seeing a 2-0 advantage dissipate into a 4-2 defeat at Fulham. ‘It’s about how we react and generally we have reacted well enough on enough occasions to do okay,’ said boss Chris Hughton, whose side remain seven points clear of the drop zone.
Burnley v Southampton
It is hard not to feel sympathy for the Clarets after seeing a two-goal lead, and their hopes of a first win at Old Trafford since 1962, evaporate in the dying seconds but to get another much-needed point makes it five unbeaten in the league for Sean Dyche’s side since their 5-1 Boxing Day humbling by Everton. However, they are just one place off the bottom three after James Ward-Prowse scored a precious equaliser for Saints against Crystal Palace in midweek.
Chelsea v Huddersfield
Blues boss Maurizio Sarri again suggested he cannot motivate his players and, to make matters worse, fans serenaded him with ‘You don’t what you’re doing’ after he took off Gonzalo Higuain during Wednesday’s 4-0 humbling at Bournemouth. The Italian knows as well as the rest of us it is the manager rather than the players who pay the price at Stamford Bridge. He cannot afford anything other than a routine win over a Huddersfield side who need another point to overhaul Derby’s record Premier League low of 11.
Crystal Palace v Fulham
Perhaps Fulham have been written off too soon judging by their stunning fightback to beat Brighton 4-2. It was achieved despite Claudio Ranieri putting his Tinkerman image to one side by picking the same side so unlucky to lose 2-1 to Tottenham in their previous game. Palace are without Wilfried Zaha after he was sent off for sarcastically applauding referee Andre Marriner in their draw at the Saints on Wednesday.
Everton v Wolves
A big game in the race for seventh place and a Europa League spot, something of a dubious reward given the trials and tribulations Burnley endured in the early part of this season. Wolves’ 3-0 win over West Ham in midweek was one of their best performances of the campaign. Toffees boss Marco Silva believes their 1-0 win at Huddersfield is a confidence boost even though Lucas Digne is out tomorrow as a result of his red card for a professional foul.
Cardiff v Bournemouth
SATURDAY, 5.30PM, BT SPORT
Emotions will doubtless run high in the first home game since the Bluebirds’ record-signing Emiliano Sala went missing. It feels crass to talk about this being an important game but it is, and Cardiff acquitted themselves well before going down 2-1 at Arsenal on Tuesday. The Cherries’ 4-0 win over Chelsea was all the more impressive with striker Callum Wilson out injured but attacking midfielder David Brooks again underlined what a class act he is.
Leicester v Manchester United
SUNDAY, 2.05PM, SKY SPORTS
United may have been well below their best during the midweek draw with Burnley but the damage was limited by an impressive never-say-die attitude which saw them come back from 2-0 down to draw 2-2. However, they face a Foxes side who seem to save their best performances for the big six, not least in getting a fully deserved 1-1 draw at Liverpool, in which their England defenders Harry Maguire and Ben Chilwell were particularly outstanding.
West Ham v Liverpool
MONDAY, 8PM, SKY SPORTS
Liverpool showed their first signs of stagefright in failing to beat Leicester, the only time they have not beaten a team outside the ‘big six’ this season. Of more concern to Jurgen Klopp should be the way they appeared to be so uncharacteristically one paced. The good news is they will head to the London Stadium with at the very least a two-point lead at the top and with the Hammers reflecting on chastening defeats at AFC Wimbledon and Wolves.