10 questions to be answered ahead of the Premier League fixtures on Stephen's Day
Is Louis van Gaal about to be sacked? Will Arsenal continue their good form? What kind of atmosphere will there be at Stamford Bridge? Charlie Eccleshare looks ahead to Saturday's action
1. Will LVG move closer to the exit door?
Reports last week said that Louis van Gaal will be sacked as Manchester United manager if his side lose either of their next two Premier League matches. The first of those two games is Stoke away on Boxing Day, followed by Chelsea at home two days later. The way Manchester United have been playing recently, it would be no surprise at all if they came a cropper at the Britannia Stadium, especially given Stoke’s occasional brilliance this season. The 2-0 home defeat of Manchester City earlier this month was one of the most breathtaking attacking displays anywhere in the Premier League this season, with Bojan Krkic, Xherdan Shaqiri and Marko Arnautovic all outstanding. If those three click again on Saturday, then Van Gaal could be on the brink of losing his job, and Wednesday's meltdown during his press conference suggests he is badly feeling the heat.
2. Will Arsenal suffer a post-City hangover?
Almost as impressive as the 3-0 Champions League win against Olympiakos earlier this month was the way Arsenal dusted themselves down and dismissed Aston Villa 2-0 four days later. Yes, Villa were abject, but many were suggesting that it was going to be difficult for Arsenal to rouse themselves again so soon after such a tiring and emotional victory. The Boxing Day trip to Southampton falls into the same category as that Villa Park success, coming just five days after the 2-1 win against Manchester City. Arsene Wenger knows that to win championships, his team can’t let their level drop for matches such as this, and he’ll need to get his tired players to play with the same intensity and focus at St Mary’s as they did so impressively against City.
3. Can Liverpool arrest the slump?
It’s been a strange couple of months for Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool. The much-heralded manager began solidly with three wins and three draws, and then kicked into gear with that stunning 4-1 win at Manchester City and a 6-1 hammering of Southampton at St Mary’s in the League Cup. Since then though it’s all gone downhill and two defeats and two draws from their last four matches leave Liverpool languishing in ninth place. Klopp needs to get his team going again, and Boxing Day’s visit of Leicester could be the perfect game to reinvigorate Liverpool. The table-topping Foxes are in excellent form, so it would give everyone a huge lift at Anfield to get a win and quell some of the doubts surrounding the quality of the team. Who knows, it might even convince the supporters to stay until the end of the match.
4. Is the Leicester bubble about to burst?
It seems like we’ve been asking this question for months now, and Leicester have continued to defy expectations. But surely Claudio Ranieri’s side can’t keep winning, can they? If they come away from Saturday’s trip to Liverpool with all three points, it would be a major statement about certainly the team’s top-four their credentials, and possibly even their title chances as well. With Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy showing no signs of slowing down, yet another Leicester victory could be on the cards.
5. What will the atmosphere be like at Stamford Bridge?
Those present for Chelsea’s 3-1 win against Sunderland last Saturday were struck by what they described as one of the strangest atmospheres they’d ever witnessed at a football ground. Chelsea strolled into a 2-0 lead after 13 minutes, which prompted their fans to abuse the players for what they felt was proof that they had not been trying under Jose Mourinho. On Saturday, new manager Guus Hiddink takes charge of the team for the first time in his second spell against Watford, and it will be interesting to see how the fans react to him and to the so-called ‘rats’ in the team. Hiddink was a very popular figure during his first spell at Stamford Bridge, but whether that will stop fans singing Mourinho’s name remains to be seen.
6. Are Aston Villa completely doomed?
It’s getting harder and harder to see how Aston Villa are going to escape relegation. They’re 10 points off safety, haven’t won a league match since August, and many of their players don’t even seem that bothered. Reinforcements are clearly needed in January, but above all they need to start winning matches to even stand a chance of avoiding the drop. West Ham are the visitors to Villa Park on Saturday, and although we’re only in December, another defeat would be disastrous.
7. Is Manuel Pellegrini a lame duck?
Pellegrini may insist he’s not bothered by the speculation surrounding Pep Guardiola taking his job, but his team have played in recent weeks as if they’re seriously lacking motivation. Three defeats from their last five league matches is nowhere near good enough for a team with the quality of City, and they badly need to beat Sunderland on Saturday to maintain the pressure on the league leaders, and to show they’re still willing to fight for their manager. With tricky away matches against Watford and Leicester to follow, Pellegrini and City can’t afford another slip-up.
8. Will Tottenham’s superior fitness pay off?
We’ve heard throughout the season that Spurs’ success so far has been underpinned by the team’s ability to outrun their opposition. In theory then the congested Christmas period should be the perfect showcase for Tottenham’s superior fitness levels, and they begin with the visit of Norwich on Saturday. Alex Neil’s side have struggled this season, but beat Manchester United at Old Trafford last time out so will arrive in north London full of confidence. They’ll need to be full of energy though to match Mauricio Pochettino’s hard-running side.
9. Who will prevail in the battle of the entertainers?
Bournemouth and Crystal Palace have been two of the most enjoyable teams to watch this season, and they go head to head on Saturday at the Vitality Stadium. Bournemouth have refused to sit back and defend even when against the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United, while Palace have thrilling options on the break with the likes of Yannick Bolasie and Wilfried Zaha, and class and poise provided by the magnificent Yohan Cabaye. Expect an open game with plenty of goals.
10. Can Everton stop haemorrhaging points?
Roberto Martinez’s side are winless in their last four league matches, but had the better of at least three of those. It’s been an infuriating sequence for Everton, and one that has left them in 10th position, despite the heroics of Romelu Lukaku and Gerard Deulofeu. Next up is a trip to Newcastle, who themselves are riddled with anxiety and self-doubt. In this very open of seasons, there’s a real chance for a team like Everton to push for the top four – but they’ll need to start closing out matches like this to stand any chance of doing so.