It’s a massive midweek in the Premier League, even if Amazon are over-egging it a bit. Also this week: Man Utd go to Barca, and Conte takes Spurs – missing a midfield – to Milan…
Game to watch – Arsenal v Manchester City
‘The game to end all rivalries’ is how Amazon are selling it. Which is demonstrably bullsh*t and a needlessly odd claim. The significance of first versus second in the Premier League title race doesn’t require the manufacture of a grudge that doesn’t exist.
Arsenal and City have been the country’s two best teams this season, the table tells us that much. But both are feeling pretty hard done by right now. The leaders by a VAR f*** up that cost them what could be two huge points come the end of the season, while City are licking their wounds and steeling themselves for a fight against the authorities over their bookkeeping practices.
The consequence of Lee Mason’s mini meltdown in a Stockley Park broom cupboard on Saturday is the opportunity for City, stodgy since the World Cup, to haul themselves level with Arsenal at the top of the table and unseat them at the summit for the first time this season.
Arsenal have looked off-colour themselves in recent weeks, with a defeat at City in the FA Cup one of three games without a win for the Gunners. Will Mikel Arteta react? Not likely. Arsenal have stuck rigidly with their plan this season and Arteta will see little reason to change tact now, even if their first major wobble of the campaign has come at the most inconvenient moment.
Christ knows what Pep Guardiola might have in store for us on Wednesday night. The City boss may have to formulate a plan to cope with the absence of Erling Haaland, which at least gives the rest of us the chance to assess the recent scalding takes that City are better without their ridiculous striker.
Regardless, two teams as fine as these, both seething with injustice, ought to be compulsory viewing.
Team to watch – Manchester United
Barcelona versus Manchester United at the Nou Camp… the Super League deviants’ wet dream. But Thursday sees the two fallen giants scrap over a place in the Europa League knockout stages.
Both sides have had a rough few years but they clash this week while getting back on their feet domestically, with Barca top of La Liga and United on the fringes of a title race that looked even more unlikely than Arsenal’s back at the start of the season.
Erik ten Hag has barely put a foot wrong while straightening out the mess he walked into and his decision to rest his first-choice centre-back partnership at Leeds on Sunday proved to be yet another astute move, with Raphael Varane and Lisandro Martinez both fresh to take on Robert Lewandowski. Casemiro, much missed in United’s midfield over the past week despite a win and a draw against Leeds, is also eligible to return and champing at the bit to face his old adversaries.
United don’t need to win the tie on Thursday, they just have to avoid losing it. Which could pose a dilemma over how much ambition they carry with them to the Nou Camp. But the Red Devils’ counter-attacking threat makes them a dangerous opponent for a Barca side so wedded to dominating possession and territory.
Read more: Arsenal blood pressure, Guardiola’s bunker mentality and PGMOL feature in winners and losers
Manager to watch – Antonio Conte
The Tottenham manager was already feeling fragile after parting with his gall bladder so he really didn’t need the heartburn prompted by the latest bout of Spursiness.
Six days after turning over the champions, Conte watched his side roll over for Leicester City. Mercifully for the recuperating boss, Cristian Stellini spared Conte’s spleen and vented his instead.
“It’s a mental process, you have to be better mentally,” said the assistant. “After we scored the goal, something changed. We are a team and in the team something has to change, not individually. It’s about the desire.”
We would assume that won’t be an issue this week because if Conte’s crew can’t get themselves up for a Champions League last-16 first-leg trip to the San Siro to face AC Milan, there really is no hope. But, Spurs.
Having seen for himself the shambles his side were, while doubtless concurring with his assistant over their attitude, how does Conte react? As well as Spurs’ mentality prolonging the manager’s discomfort, he must also patch together a midfield, with Rodrigo Bentancur joining Yves Bissouma in the physio’s room, while Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg is suspended. It’s entirely possible that Spurs’ engine room at the San Siro will be manned by Oliver Skipp and Pape Matar Sarr.
Player to watch – Joao Felix
Joao Felix is only two games into his Chelsea career but he was the Blues’ best player in both, even accounting for a red card that saw him sit out a month of his five-month loan spell from Atletico Madrid.
The Portugal attacker was evidently too keen to make an impression on his debut at Fulham which ended abruptly with dismissal. He certainly appeared eager to make amends at West Ham on Saturday when, in the first half especially, he was by far the brightest spark in a Chelsea side yet to catch fire under Graham Potter.
His first goal for the club offered a tantalising glimpse of what the future could look like, with Felix finding space to volley in an exquisite delivery from Enzo Fernandez. Both January additions look like they might have to do a lot of the heavy lifting for the Chelsea attack while their other new arrivals, Mykhaylo Mudryk and Noni Madueke, take a little more time to settle.
Felix doesn’t have that luxury since he’s currently due to return to Atletico Madrid at the end of the season. He is in even more of a hurry than Potter, who reportedly has been assured that he won’t be judged on this season. Felix, though, appears hungry and capable of helping Chelsea make an impact in the Champions League, starting on Dortmund on Wednesday, having failed to make a dent domestically.
European game to watch – Club Brugge v Benfica
There is English interest in one of the other last-16 ties taking place this week, with Scott Parker bossing Club Brugge in the Champions League for the first time.
Parker will become only the fifth English manager to coach in the Champions League knockout stage when Benfica turn up in Bruges. It will be our first real chance to check in with the former Bournemouth and Fulham boss in Belgium, where he has drawn five of his seven league games in charge. But, this season, Brugge are a different animal in Europe, having progressed from a group that featured Atletico Madrid, Bayer Leverkusen and Porto.
If Parker and his stripy sleeves don’t grab you, then the other last-16 tie is a humdinger: PSG versus Bayern Munich.
EFL game to watch – Sheffield United v Middlesbrough
Championship leaders Burnley and their clash with sixth-placed Watford is Sky Sports’ Main Event on Tuesday night but perhaps the most intriguing midweek clash from the second tier comes at Bramall Lane, where second-placed Sheffield United host Boro.
Michael Carrick’s men are just about keeping the Blades in view having been rejuvenated by the ex-Manchester United midfielder. The gap between second and third is as great as the chasm between third and 11th, but Boro are on a roll with Carrick-ball, having won 10 of their last 12 and 11 of their last 15 since the manager took over towards the end of October.
This is a huge chance for the Blades, however, to give themselves even more breathing space in the promotion push. Should they lose at home to Boro, a seven-point gap would not be insurmountable given the run the Teessiders are on. If United win, it puts 13 points between them and Boro, and at least 12 clear of Luton, who face Preston on Wednesday night.