Saturday 3 December 2016

10 key questions ahead of the midweek fixtures in the Premier League

Charlie Eccleshare and Rob Bagchi

Published 11/01/2016 | 10:30

Ahead of the full Premier League programme tomorrow and on Wednesday, Charlie Eccleshare and Rob Bagchi ask the burning questions

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1. Can anger be Manchester United's energy this season?

John Lydon certainly thinks anger is an energy, if we take his words in Public Image Limited's Rise at face value, and Louis van Gaal echoed the dyed-in-the-wool Gooner's sentiment following United's victory over Swansea.

"They are very angry that we have lost so many games in a row," he said when asked to identify the inspiration for the performance. United have lost only once in the past 14 years at St James' Park - a 3-0 defeat in January 2012 - and for much of that dominant spell they seldom needed to bother upsetting themselves before rolling Newcastle over.

But Steve McClaren's side are unpredictable - playing commendably at Old Trafford and on their last two visits to London, but woefully against West Brom and Aston Villa.

Newcastle's defensive weakness at full-back should be prime territory for Ashley Young - back in the side and back on form - to exploit on the right and Anthony Martial on the left.

Young has plenty to be angry about - not least his manager's apparent lack of faith in him. Channel that again and Newcastle will have to play as well as they have done away from St James' to get something out of the game.

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2. Should Villa accept their fate and plan for next season already?

Eighteen Premier League matches to go and Villa are 11 points from safety.

Miracles do happen in football but one-off victories against all odds are not the same as masking the deficiencies of a hapless defence long enough to claw themselves towards safety.

Wouldn't it be better for Remi Garde to treat this as the beginning of an 18-month promotion campaign rather than a futile battle against the inevitable.

In that regard why not use the players who will be serviceable next season - find out whether Mark Bunn can be a credible No1, work out a system that gets the best out of Rudy Gestede, work out whether Jores Okore is ever going to string a run of games together - and sideline the players who are no worth to Villa now and will be even less use to the manager next season.

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3. Can Bournemouth's double-teaming thwart West Ham?

Bournemouth's use of a five-man midfield against Leicester and Manchester United worked a treat in stopping two sides whose strategy is based on using width dominating the flanks and getting crosses in.

Junior Stanislas and Matt Ritchie were tireless in supporting their full-backs and it would be a surprise if they slackened off against West Ham. Against Liverpool Michail Antonio and Andy Carroll buried headers from right-wing crosses and Bournemouth need to block that route to goal.

Jürgen Klopp's gegenpress was not applied with enough diligence by Liverpool to stop the crosses at source, will the rather old-fashioned double-teaming of Eddie Howe be more effective?

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4. Are Everton becoming more pragmatic?

The person who wrote on these pages last week that Everton's Muhamed Besic was an expensive flop rather than a terrific prospect whose progress at Everton has been blighted by injury wishes to eat his words after the midfielder's performance against City in the Capital One Cup semi-final first leg.

The desire to hold Roberto Martínez accountable to the same standards that apply to every other manager must have led him to get carried away. Besic was vital in allowing Everton to play on the counter against Manchester City and in shoring up a defence that, in the absence of Phil Jagielka, has made too many mistakes.

Has Martínez at last become a little more pragamtic? We shall see - if Besic and Gareth Barry are again used together from choice rather than necessity, Everton fans may be reassured that their manager is more oncerned about not losing than he is about winning praise for his altruistic commitment to entertainment at any cost.

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5. Will Stoke bend to Arnautovic?

Marko Arnautovic has been outstanding for Stoke this season as he was at the beginning of 2013-14 and the end of 2014-15 but is stalling over signing a new contract.

Stoke's approach with their major foreign signings (the ones with Champions League experience aged in their mid-twenties) - and we can add Bojan and Xherdan Shaqiri to that category - is to use their talent for their own ends while offering an opportunity for the player to showcase their worth, giving them a chance to restore their reputations after a spell in the doldrums.

So what do they do with Arnautovic - pay him what he is asking for and look to kick on towards challenging for a Champions League place in the medium term? Or sell him for good fee while they can and trust in the scouting team's eye for another player ripe for rehabilitation at the Britannia?

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6. Will Arsenal demonstrate their title credentials?

They sit top of the table by two points and gradually have players coming back from injury, so on the face of it Arsenal are in rude health.

Their next two matches though have danger written all over them in big block capitals.

On Wednesday Arsene Wenger's men are at Anfield to take on Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool, before a trip to bogey ground the Britannia Stadium to face Stoke on Sunday.

With City only three points behind the Gunners, and with winnable looking home matches against Everton and Crystal Palace coming up, Arsenal will probably need four points from their away double header to maintain their lead over Manuel Pellegrini's team, not to mention Leicester who are only two points off the top.

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7. How will Liverpool cope with their injury crisis?

Jurgen Klopp has seen his squad decimated by injury in recent weeks, with Philippe Coutinho, Daniel Sturridge and Jordan Henderson among the 11 players currently out.

On Wednesday, Liverpool host Arsenal, who themselves are all too familiar with losing players to injury, and will need some of their stand-in players to deliver.

Lucas was heroic as a makeshift centre-half against Stoke in the Capital One Cup semi-final last Tuesday, and Klopp will require similar performances this week if his team are to keep Mesut Ozil and co. at bay.

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8. Can Chelsea really finish in the top four?

Chelsea are unbeaten since Guus Hiddink took temporary charge, and the 3-0 win at Crystal Palace prompted suggestions that maybe, just maybe, the Blues could charge up the table and claim a top four spot.

Hiddink's side are still 13 points off the Champions League places, so winning matches like the one against West Brom on Wednesday is an absolute must. Beating Tony Pulis's side would also be the first time Chelsea have won two league games in a row this season.

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9. Who will win the battle of the great pretenders?

Spurs and Leicester have both been superb this season, and occupy the fourth and second positions in the Premier League.

On Wednesday they meet at White Hart Lane for the second of three matches between the sides in less than two weeks. Leicester haven't won, or indeed, scored in their last three league games and could do with a win to regain their momentum, while Spurs will want to maintain or increase the three-point gap between themselves and Manchester United.

With the likes of Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Riyad Mahrez and (probably) Jamie Vardy on the pitch, it should be an entertaining affair.

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10. Will Swansea regret putting Alan Curtis in permanent charge?

With perfect timing, Swansea announced they would be making Alan Curtis permanent manager, and just two days later he oversaw an embarassing 3-2 FA Cup defeat to League Two Oxford.

Staying in the Premier League though is of course the priority, and Wednesday's match against second bottom Sunderland feels absolutely crucial. Swansea are just two points above the relegation zone and need to be winning matches like this to maintain their top-flight status.

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Telegraph.co.uk

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