It’s massive at the top and bottom of the Premier League – both at Goodison. Arsenal have their hardest remaining fixture, while Man Utd and Leicester must shape up sharpish…
Game to watch – Arsenal v Brighton
In many eyes, there are three teams who’ll have a big say in the title race: Manchester City and Arsenal, obviously. And then Brighton.
The Seagulls have to face each of the top two, with City and the Gunners each pinning many of their hopes of a rival slip-up on Roberto De Zerbi’s side. Even if Brighton get a result against City in their penultimate game of the season, it might not be enough. With their vastly superior goal difference, the reigning champions need just eight points from their final four games to retain their crown, which they could do at the AmEx if they maintain their winning form.
All Arsenal can do is keep winning, which won’t be easy on Sunday at the Emirates.
Well it will be easy if Brighton turn in a performance like the one they phoned in against Everton on Monday, but the Seagulls will be seething and keen to atone for a 5-1 home humping. “I think Sunday at Arsenal, we will show our quality, back to our style,” said De Zerbi after criticising his side’s mentality and their hangover from a last-gasp win over Man Utd.
So Arsenal will have to be at their best, just as they were at Newcastle last week. At St James’ Park, they didn’t play their finest football of the season, but they perfected the necessary blend of aggression and aesthetics. Their wobble, in which they took three points from 12 to open the door for City, looks to be behind them. We’ll know for sure come Sunday evening.
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Manager to watch – Pep Guardiola
One of the few remaining straws for Arsenal to clutch is the possibility of City being distracted by their Treble ambitions. If that is to happen, it could be this weekend, when Pep Guardiola takes his side to Everton in between huge Champions League semi-final first and second legs against Real Madrid.
Going to Goodison isn’t often easy when the home crowd have got their tails up, which they most certainly have in the wake of a stunning win at Brighton. That victory and performance came on the back of a similarly encouraging display at Leicester a week before. This Everton are not to be taken lightly.
So Guardiola has a delicate balancing act to perform when he submits his team-sheet at Goodison. John Stones, Kyle Walker, Ruben Dias, Rodri, Bernardo Silva and Jack Grealish were all omitted last weekend before the trip to Madrid, but despite similar positions in the league, Everton away poses a bigger threat to City’s title prospects than Leeds at home.
Guardiola said some of those players asked to sit out what turned out to be a nervier-than-needed 2-1 win because they were ‘so tired’ after 10 games in 33 days. City, though, will need some of those stars to suck it up on Sunday and put Real’s Wednesday visit on the back-burner.
Team to watch – Manchester United
Like City, United were knackered. But unlike their derby rivals, tiredness has got to the Red Devils and left their ambitions for the season in peril.
They welcome Wolves to Old Trafford on Saturday in dire need of a win after two defeats. Both were gifted to the opposition by the type of mistakes that can occur from fatigued minds and bodies. But Erik ten Hag’s squad have just enjoyed their first free midweek since September and two days off after the miserable trips to Brighton and West Ham.
So they have to come out refreshed and reinvigorated against Wolves to get their top-four hopes back on track. They’ve chucked away what cushion they had, and with Liverpool having suddenly rediscovered some relentlessness, United must do the same.
As well as some energy, Ten Hag needs to hope his players have discovered some ruthlessness in their time off. More than fatigue, United’s lack of potency in front of goal is the single biggest factor in their struggle to nail down a Champions League spot. They fired blanks in five of their last 10 games and the pattern has been infuriatingly similar: “We dictated the game, we created chances, we didn’t take them,” said Ten Hag after the defeat to West Ham, and similar could have been said after Brighton.
Neither Anthony Martial nor Wout Weghorst are the future of United’s forward line but they are not the only culprits when it comes to the Red Devils’ profligacy. It is a collective failure and in the absence of a fit-for-purpose centre-forward, it requires a collective solution against a Wolves side free from the threat of relegation.
Player to watch – James Maddison
Leicester are another side who need a reaction this weekend.
James Maddison offered one after the fans had given theirs in the immediate aftermath of the woeful 5-3 defeat at Fulham. He suggested the Foxes “were not hungry enough” before taking to Twitter to clarify what he meant.
‘The very end’ could come sooner than the players realise without a swift and dramatic shift in attitude and fortunes. On Monday, sitting two points adrift of safety, they welcome Liverpool before going to Newcastle. By the time West Ham turn up at the King Power on the final day, their survival hopes may already have gone the same way as their defensive resolve.
Leicester haven’t kept a clean sheet in 20 games so this is a bad time to be coming up against a resurgent Liverpool attack. They almost certainly won’t need the help offered to them by Wout Faes when he scored twice for the Reds at Anfield in December. Mercifully at the other end, Maddison is carrying a threat and Jamie Vardy is resembling something like the shadow of his old self.
Maddison certainly, and quite likely Vardy too, would be spared the Championship if Leicester don’t swerve the drop, but both have their legacies to protect. When Maddison has a point to prove, he’s often at his most dangerous, and Liverpool must be wary as they seek to maintain their surge towards the top four.
EFL game(s) to watch – Play-offs first legs
It’s brown trouser time in the EFL, with six play-offs kicking off across three days on a weekend to remind us all that friends, family and natural sunlight are all massively overrated.
It starts on Friday when Peterborough host Sheffield Wednesday in League One. On Saturday, filling a Premier League void, the blackout is binned for Bolton versus Barnsley at 3pm before Sunderland welcome Luton at 5:30pm. Then there’s more, with Salford against Stockport on Saturday night.
On Sunday, the big Premier League games are sandwiched by Coventry’s clash with Middlesbrough at midday, while Bradford against Carlisle wraps up a belting weekend, which also features the National League play-off final at Wembley with Notts County and Chesterfield.
European game to watch – Espanyol v Barcelona
It’s a biggie in Catalonia, with the derby decisive for leaders Barca and strugglers Espanyol. Barca can seal the La Liga title with victory on Sunday night, while the hosts desperately need the points in their fight against relegation. Luis Garcia’s side are currently second-bottom and three points adrift of safety.
Away fans will have to keep their heads down at the RCDE Stadium, with all Barca colours prohibited from entering the stadium. Espanyol are retaliating following a similar measure imposed by Barca in the first derby this season, their p*ss-poor excuse being the fear of a repeat of when Eintracht Frankfurt stormed the Nou Camp last year.
If there’s similar aggro in this game as there was in that one, it’ll be worth flicking from the League Two play-offs. Barca and Espanyol played out an ill-tempered 1-1 draw with a red card apiece and 15 (fifteen) yellows.