Sport Premier League, FA Cup and EFL: 10 things to look out for this weekend – The Guardian
April 16, 2021
1) Tuchel seeks to unpick rampant City
The blueprint for beating
Manchester City is not complex, because it is identical to the blueprint for beating any other team: attack well and defend properly. Of course there are subtleties within that and City’s ability to retain possession while creating chances can make both aspects extremely taxing, but Chelsea are better placed than most to find a way. At some point, Thomas Tuchel will probably instruct his team to play more expansively than they do now, but at Wembley he will station two defensive midfielders in front of three centre-backs – a difficult barrier for any team to pick through, never mind one facing players as good as Chelsea’s. Going forward, though, things are trickier, because although City’s defensive record is better than their defending, Tuchel has yet to find the right creative blend. He will, though, be heartened by the recent improvement of Christian Pulisic and Kai Havertz. DH
2) Will Guardiola rest stars for grander prizes ahead?
City are in with a chance of winning the quadruple for very simple reasons: they have excellent players, a superb team, and a brilliant manager. They also have the most lavishly-appointed squad in English football history, able to swap quality for quality, while others were choosing between tired players, injured players and children. Now, though, things become more difficult, because as the trophies draw nearer the matches become harder. Playing teams in the bottom half of the table, Pep Guardiola could rely on the inherent class of whoever turned out to get the job done, but now he needs to pick the right players for the right opponents, and his two most essential – Phil Foden and Kevin De Bruyne – need looking after. City’s win in Dortmund will have taken a mental and physical toll, so it will be fascinating to see who starts at Wembley.
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3) Lessons learned, now Rodgers needs Covid trio
In theory this should be the more intriguing of the weekend’s FA Cup semi-finals, constituting the biggest game of each side’s season. Brendan Rodgers, though, faces the more modern dilemma of balancing it with lucrative Champions League qualification, as well as a moral one concerning whether to select James Maddison, Hamza Choudhury and Ayoze Pérez who were
excluded from the defeat at West Ham for breaching Covid regulations. “There are some things that are more important than football,” said Rodgers last weekend before adding “It’s gone now and they’ll rejoin us next week”, which suggests a handy rapprochement. Leicester have never won the cup and have not made the final for more than five decades so would be well advised to properly go for it – as should Southampton, who have little to play for in the league and whose only cup triumph came 45 years ago. A packed Wembley would have given this tie a real crackle, but it can still light up an empty one. TD
Leicester v Southampton, FA Cup semi-final (Sunday, 6.30pm)
Will Diogo Jota, a sub against Real Madrid, start instead of one of Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino? Photograph: Xinhua/REX/Shutterstock 4) Time for Klopp to break up the band?
Not that long ago, Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah were feted as the world’s greatest strikeforce.Their goals helped their team become champions of Europe, then champions of England. But even during that period, their contribution seemed to outweigh their ability, which reflects the excellence of Liverpool’s scouting team in finding them, the genius of Jürgen Klopp in inspiring them to a level previously thought out of reach, and their mental strength. Now, though, their output has dropped, presenting Klopp with a conundrum: Firmino’s low goals tally is intolerable now that Mané and Salah are contributing fewer, so he should be replaced by the more prolific Diogo Jota … except Mané and Salah have spent three years relying on the kind of service that Firmino can provide. Against Leeds, Klopp may opt for the latter, whose pace in behind is likely to be more useful than the former’s playmaking.
DH 5) Hammers seek to relive glory days of 1986
Underpinning West Ham’s successes this season has been their very un-West Ham-like ruthlessness. In 15 matches against the sides in the bottom half of the table, they have won 10, drawn four and lost only one – at home to Newcastle on the
opening weekend of the season. They look well placed toavenge that defeat, because of the six teams beneath the top two, David Moyes’s side currently look the most confident and fluent – many West Ham sides of old would have turned those 3-0 leads against Leicester and Wolves into draws or defeats when faced with late onslaughts. Even injuries to Declan Rice and Michail Antonio do not appear to have knocked them off their stride and victory against an improving but still limited Newcastle will stir fresh hopes that they can emulate the club’s best-ever finish, third in 1986 – a campaign in which John Lyall’s stylish side memorably eviscerated these opponents 8-1 in the run-in. TD
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Newcastle v West Ham, Premier League (Saturday 12.30pm) 6) Burnley may be difficult for United to break down
After eight years of incompetence,
Manchester United are alright at football again: not many sides are good enough to win away to Manchester City and PSG, while their second-half performance at Tottenham last weekend was up there with anything they’ve produced since Alex Ferguson skived off. But though their top level is now a high level, the big pots tend to be won by teams with a high bottom level. The mavens have decided that United find it hard to break down opponents who defend deep and in numbers, but that’s so of every team; the difference between their best and their worst is not one of ability but intensity, and until they can find it in games like Burnley at home, they will not challenge for the title. DH
7) Fulham enter their last-chance saloon
It is now or never for
Fulham. They did superbly to drag themselves within touching distance of safety earlier in the spring but, when an escape from the bottom three looked likely, contrived to equal their worst run of the season. It means they have to start winning at unlikely venues, just as they did at Anfield in what seemed a seismic result at the time; Arsenal are up this weekend and Chelsea next; at least one of those matches needs to yield three points and, given Mikel Arteta’s side were preoccupied as recently as Thursday night and are some way from the European picture domestically, Sunday seems their best chance. Ademola Lookman could return from a hamstring injury and offer the creative spark they missed in losing disastrously to Wolves last week. Fulham are well structured, fairly consistent and rarely outplayed but arguably offer little to truly stir the blood. A rousing afternoon at the Emirates is required to raise temperatures in the relegation fight. NA 8) Blades stare down relegation abyss
Sheffield United may well be down by Saturday night. Relegations long foretold still hurt but also mean the season’s closing weeks lack tension, serving as one long audition for the following campaign. Chris Wilder’s contentious dismissal felt like the moment the Blades gave up on survival and results have not improved since, though tenacious displays in defeat at Leeds and Chelsea suggest the spirit is willing even if the team is weak. But Paul Heckingbottom, Wilder’s interim successor, will need points soon if he is to stand any chance of landing the gig on a permanent basis. He is thought to have impressed his bosses in the past few weeks but Slavisa Jokanovic appears to be the most popular choice among fans, having won promotion from the Championship with Watford and Fulham, with Eddie Howe and Neil Lennon also in the frame. A frequently underwhelming Wolves might at least present United with the chance to go down fighting.
Wolves v Sheffield United, Premier League (Saturday 8.15pm)
Paul Heckingbottom has been unable to even slow Blades’ slip down to the Championship. Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images 9) Calvert-Lewin and Kane share goalscorers’ burden
An injury-blighted Everton were painful to watch in grinding to a goalless draw at Brighton on Monday; Spurs went through agonies of their own, reflected in an emotional post-match interview from Son Heung-min in flopping to defeat against Manchester United. Both sides must raise their game quickly if they are to apply moderate pressure to the Champions League spots or stay in the Europa League conversation. That suggests a nervy game given defeat is not an option for either team but victory looks imperative. Everton hope Dominic Calvert-Lewin will return from the adductor problem that in effect eliminated their goal threat at the Amex; Tottenham may find, once again, that they are reliant on Harry Kane pulling something out of the fire. England’s first and second-choice centre-forwards will both face question marks about their future this summer, but whoever comes out on top will have a far better chance of ending the season with at least some satisfaction.
NA 10) Canaries set for fourth upward flight
Norwich will be promoted from the
Championship with four games to spare if they beat Bournemouth at Carrow Road, and the feeling will not be new. Whether it happens this weekend or not, this will be the Canaries’ fourth ascent to the top flight in the past decade. They have become the epitome of a yo-yo club although things feel slightly different to last time, when they rose from uncertain beginnings under Daniel Farke to seal a surprise title win in 2018-19. This time there is a sense Norwich are ready for the Premier League and intent on establishing themselves: they are superbly run, in robust financial health, creative in their thinking and boast one of the country’s best sporting directors in Stuart Webber. Their relegation last season may have been comprehensive but there was always the impression Norwich had priced that in with the aim of coming back stronger. Soon, they will have a chance to show that this time, they are in it for the long haul. NA
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