An unusual quandary for Manchester City, crunch games at Bournemouth and Newcastle, plus the rise of Wilfried Ndidi.
1) Ndidi to eclipse Kanté again?
Credit to Leicester. Or should that be shame on Chelsea? Wherever you choose to put the emphasis, the fact is that Wilfried Ndidi is now a more influential Premier League midfielder than N’Golo Kanté. The Frenchman has been good this season, of course, but Frank Lampard, like Maurizio Sarri, has not been getting the best out of him. Ndidi, meanwhile, has been outstanding and, if he dominates central midfield again on Saturday, then Leicester will probably put their Carabao Cup disappointment behind them, take a significant step closer to Champions League qualification, and make the jostling for fourth place very interesting. PD
- Leicester v Chelsea, Saturday 12.30pm (all times GMT)
2) Walker-Peters has work to do
Ralph Hasenhüttl deserves acclaim for the way that Southampton have tightened up since that historic mullering by Leicester in October. But they have still conceded more goals in their last two league matches than Liverpool have in their last 10. And their defence is likely to have a new look at Anfield on Saturday, with Kyle Walker-Peters set to step in on the right-hand side for the Arsenal-bound Cédric Soares. Japhet Tanganga did a fair job containing Liverpool’s wingers earlier this month but his solitary lapse was punished by a goal that gave the league leaders victory at Spurs. Southampton hope that the player who left White Hart Lane after being overtaken by Tanganga can do better against the champions-elect and reignite his career with help from Hassenhüttl. PD
• Liverpool v Southampton, Saturday 3pm
3) How do City prime themselves for Europe?
Manchester City are in an awkward position. With 14 games still to go, they’ve no chance of winning the league, no chance of finishing outside the top four, and next to no chance of not finishing second. So, though they’re still in both domestic cups, their focus is on winning the Champions League. The question is how they go about it: do they give everything in every game, or do they save themselves so that they’re fresh when they need to be? On the one hand, it’s hard to turn it on just like that, but on the other, it’s hard to turn it on when you’re knackered, and neither approach can compensate for the defensive deficiencies that have cost them in each of the last three seasons. Against Spurs, they should expect to have no choice, because their opponents need points, and José Mourinho needs to make one – not just because his genetic code dictates he can do no other. Since he succeeded Mauricio Pochettino, his team have produced few decent performances never mind any signature performances, playing joyless, guileless football in the process. They and he need something, and soon. DH
Tottenham v Manchester City, Sunday 4.30pm
4) Chase for Europe continues at Old Trafford
By any measure this is a massive game between two clubs hoping to secure European football next season – Wolves and Manchester United drew 1-1 at Molineux in August and there is still nothing to separate them, level-pegging as they are on 34 points, with the dream of fourth place or the relative nightmare of mid-table still possible. It might be key that Wolves have had 10 days to prepare, the benefit of losing to these opponents in the FA Cup third round, while United have had to negotiate two testing cup matches. Given their poor recent league results – their last two games ended in 2-0 defeats to Liverpool and Burnley – United and their manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjær, could not afford to take the visit to Tranmere lightly, while the Carabao Cup semi-final would have demanded full focus even if the opposition had not been Manchester City. But this game could turn out to be much more important than either of those. SB
• Manchester United v Wolves, Saturday 5.30pm
5) Coincidences abound at Vicarage Road
After three months out with injury Danny Welbeck is expected to return to the Watford squad for this game, against Everton, a side he was repeatedly linked with last season. Perhaps the greatest tactical problem Watford have faced this season is a complete inability to attack cohesively without Troy Deeney to knit the forward line together, but Welbeck has the technical quality to improve an unhealthy over-reliance on their captain – if he can stay fit. The game will also feature a winger who used to play for Everton and Barcelona but is now with Watford and one that used to play for Watford, now plays for Everton and is rumoured to be wanted by Barcelona. In geographical coincidence news, Everton’s last visit to London was when they drew with Crystal Palace on the first day of the season, since when they have not played, even in the cups, anywhere between Birmingham and the south coast. They play Watford, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham in their next five away games. SB
Watford v Everton, Saturday 3pm
6) Howe has striking headaches against buoyant Villa
Bournemouth’s 3-1 win over Brighton last week merely confirmed that Graham Potter’s team are in a world of bother, not that Eddie Howe’s side are too good to survive this season. There is no reason to back them to win Saturday’s relegation showdown with Aston Villa – except, of course, that Villa have been prone to shooting themselves in the foot, including when these sides met at Villa Park in August. But Dean Smith’s team are getting things together and go into this game looking as strong as they have at any other point in the campaign, with a relatively new formation and plenty of confidence following consecutive last-gasp wins over Watford and Leicester. They are likely to create a lot of chances for their new striker, Mbwana Samatta, while Howe must decide whether to keep waiting for Dominic Solanke to locate the net or to give a first Premier League start to Sam Surridge instead. PD
• Bournemouth v Aston Villa, Saturday 3pm
7) Norwich need to roll back the months
When these sides met in August with the sun on their backs, Norwich romped to a 3-1 victory inspired by a Teemu Pukki hat-trick, and Newcastle looked much the likelier to figure in the relegation battle. Five months on, and it’s Norwich who face the survival battle, while Newcastle have moved into the middle tier and could be about to escape Mike Ashley’s frying pan for the ethical fire. On the field, things have begun to tick for Newcastle, which makes this another formidable assignment for Daniel Farke’s side, who haven’t been playing that badly – they were frankly robbed at Tottenham – but are carrying an air of loveable-but-doomed about them. So they need to take points, preferably three, from fixtures such as this. Unlike Newcastle, Norwich have had a quiet transfer window and with Spurs and Liverpool up after this, the Canaries need to tighten , buckle up and win here. TD
• Newcastle v Norwich, Saturday 3pm
8) Dyche seeks to stem the flow
There are seven clubs that Sean Dyche has faced as a manager without so much as drawing. Six of those – including Sheffield United, who will visit Turf Moor in April – he has only faced once, but the other is Arsenal, who he has come up against 10 times already in league and cup without success of any sort. He has come close on occasion – the Laurent Koscielny stoppage-time handball winner of 2016, say, or the two stoppage-time Alexis Sánchez penalty winners of 2017 – but always, somehow, the Gunners have prevailed. With Arsenal still inconsistent as Mikel Arteta beds in and suffering a string of defensive injuries – though Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang will return from suspension – and Burnley having beaten Leicester and Manchester United in their last two league games, perhaps this will be the time. “There’s been a lot of last-minute goals and it would be nice to get one against them,” said Jack Cork. “They are going through a transitional stage and it would be good to get them at a time where they’re a little bit vulnerable and try and get at them.” SB
- Burnley v Arsenal, Sunday 2pm
9) A fun clash of the frail?
If you were to organise a conference for the latest round of football’s interminable Entertainment v Efficiency debate, the ideal venue would be Brighton. Graham Potter’s funky new side have played some lovely stuff but continually found ways not to win. And now look at them! They have fewer points than Chris Hughton’s bores had at this stage last season and find themselves going to West Ham feeling almost as vulnerable as their hosts. A clash between two teams who are far from clinical, often short on aggression and always liable to make a defensive blunder could be, in its own inefficient way, highly entertaining. PD
• West Ham v Brighton, Saturday 3pm
10) How will Wilder manage change?
It’s a long time since a promoted side has imposed itself on the Premier League as brilliantly as Sheffield United. Though Wolves’ patient possession game worked very well last season, Blades’ fast, aggressive approach is far more interesting to watch and has also been accomplished without the involvement of Jorge Mendes. Most particularly, what they are doing and what we are enjoying is a triumph for Chris Wilder, who understands football in all its aspects: his adult response to Oli McBurnie enjoying himself is every bit as important as all the cogitation and innovation. But this week he has set himself a new challenge: can he integrate an expensive outsider? Attracting a talent of Sander Berge’s calibre looks like being yet further testament to the work he has done, but disturbing the balance of something which already works is always a risk. We have no reason to think that Wilder will not find a way – beginning at Selhurst on Saturday. DH
• Crystal Palace v Sheffield United, Saturday 3pm