THE BIG MATCH
Liverpool v Manchester City
Sunday, 4pm, Sky Sports
RARELY can the gap between one team and the rest in the Premier League have felt so great.
It seems strange to say that about a club who floundered in the title race in each of the past two seasons but Manchester City’s stranglehold on the English game appears only to be increasing.
While Liverpool have been unable to prevent Philippe Coutinho from leaving for Barcelona and Tottenham were forced to admit they would be unable to keep Harry Kane against his will, the only door open at Manchester City for players in their prime is marked ‘in’.
With Pep Guardiola reportedly close to signing Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez — whether it be now or in the summer — it seems City, backed by Sheikh Mansour’s billions, have a greater pulling power.
But Liverpool have been here before when they were forced to accede to Luis Suarez’s requests to move to the Catalan giants. As Jurgen Klopp’s well-received statement eloquently put it: ‘ I have been here long enough now to know in the history of Liverpool, key players have left before — but the club always goes on.
‘You cannot transfer the heart and soul of Liverpool Football Club, although I am sure there are many clubs who would like to buy it.’
It wasn’t bad timing that news of Coutinho’s departure followed in the immediate wake of £75m Virgil van Dijk scoring the winner in their FA Cup tie with Everton.
Ending the unbeaten run of a City team who beat them 5-0 in September would, however, be more tangible proof there is life after Coutinho.
Mohamed Salah, now probably the Reds’ prize asset, is set to return after missing two games with a groin injury.
Klopp will surely have learnt something from Bristol City’s heroic, attacking performance on Tuesday in the Carabao Cup, only going down 2-1 after a winner from sub Sergio Aguero deep into stoppage time. Maybe this City side is not so invincible after all.
Chelsea v Leicester
The Foxes hope Jamie Vardy will be back to lead their attack after missing the last two games with a groin injury. In the clash of the last two Premier League champions, Leicester may face N’Golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater, who formed their midfield engine room during the Foxes’ title success.
■ 12 — Wins for Chelsea in the last 14 games with Leicester
Crystal Palace v Burnley
So much has happened since Burnley’s 1-0 win in the fourth game of the season — a match Palace largely dominated — saw Frank de Boer’s reign as boss end virtually before it had begun. An FA Cup defeat at Brighton not withstanding, Roy Hodgson has inspired such a turnaround he is Clarets manager Sean Dyche’s biggest rival for manager of the year — if you don’t count those with bottomless resources.
Huddersfield v West Ham
The Hammers rode their luck at Shrewsbury to remain in the FA Cup although a replay next week would not be what new manager David Moyes wanted. Huddersfield’s 2-1 win at Bolton brought a quick return to form after their 3-0 defeat at Leicester and David Wagner’s men have lost just two of their last eight games, although their mid-table position belies the fact they remain just four points clear of the Premier League relegation zone.
Newcastle v Swansea
Carlos Carvalhal is without the suspended Kyle Naughton for Swansea’s trip to St James’ Park but Leroy Fer’s appeal against a red card was successful. Newcastle boss Rafael Benitez surprised fans by picking a strong side for their FA Cup win over Luton and captain Jamaal Lascelles should be fit despite coming off in that game.
One to watch
Ayoze Perez (Newcastle): Nominally a forward, the Canary Islander (pictured) had scored just once all season before a spell of three goals in six days earned three vital league points at Stoke and an FA Cup third-round win against Luton. Victory over the Potters made it seven points from a possible 12 over the Christmas period and another win against lowly Swansea tomorrow would leave the Magpies in the heady heights of mid-table. With no sign of a resolution to takeover talks on Tyneside, boss Rafa Benitez may be forced to lean on his existing squad for the rest of the season, so Perez’s new-found nose for goal may come in useful.
Watford v Southampton
This will be the first of two clashes between these clubs this month, with the Hornets having been drawn to play at Southampton in the fourth round of the FA Cup. That competition gave both sides a timely boost last week, even if Saints boss Mauricio Pellegrino was greeted by chants of ‘you don’t know what you’re doing’ after a substitution during their victory at Fulham.
■ 4-3 — Saints ran out winners in last season’s fixture
West Brom v Brighton
Two more clubs given a lift by FA Cup victories but while Brighton would never sniff at a win over bitter rivals Crystal Palace, the Baggies needed it more, ending a run of 21 games without a win at Exeter. That game featured a tug-of-war to take a penalty between Jay Rodriguez and Hal Robson-Kanu with the latter winning — and missing.
Tottenham v Everton
Saturday, 5.30pm, BT Sport
The new manager bounce Everton enjoyed under Sam Allardyce seems like a distant memory after five games without a win. Harry Kane’s surprising FA Cup appearance for Spurs against Wimbledon was rewarded with two goals in a hard-fought victory, making it little surprise the club are desperate their latest star does not follow Gareth Bale to Real Madrid. Kane has managed four goals in his last two games against the Toffees.
■ 10 — Games without a win for Everton v Spurs
Bournemouth v Arsenal
Sunday, 1.30pm, Sky Sports
A very different Arsenal should be on show to the one thumped 4-2 at Nottingham Forest last Sunday as Arsene Wenger sits in the stands for the final game of his three-match touchline ban. The Gunners have never scored less than two in their previous six meetings with the Cherries but had to come from 3-0 down to draw 3-3 a year ago. Bournemouth are the great entertainers, their last seven games featuring 28 goals.
Man Utd v Stoke
Monday, 8pm, Sky Sports
Mark Hughes’ sacking denies him the chance to return to the club where he made his name as a player but the former boss insists he left the Potters in decent shape, despite the shock FA Cup exit at Coventry that ultimately led to his exit. United have been away for a mid-season break of sorts, spending five days in Dubai in a bid to recharge the batteries. Even Jose seemed to enjoy it.
■ 3 — Consecutive meetings Stoke have drawn with United