Tuesday 20 March 2018

10 things to watch as Premier League climax draws near

Will Alan Pardew's beard keep growing on fans? And what of Martin O'Neill's mojo and Michael Owen's last hurrah, asks Louise Taylor

Villa Park still breaks into applause in the 19th minute of every home game — 19 is the number of Stiliyan Petrov, their captain and key midfielder, absent for a year due to acute leukaemia
Villa Park still breaks into applause in the 19th minute of every home game — 19 is the number of Stiliyan Petrov, their captain and key midfielder, absent for a year due to acute leukaemia

1 "They like beards in Eastern Europe," said Newcastle United's manager when he first appeared sporting facial hair before his side faced Metalist Kharkiv in the Europa League. By the time Guus Hiddink's Anzhi Makhachkala were vanquished and a Premier League revival was under way Newcastle fans had established a tribute Twitter account – @APardewsBeard – in its honour.

Pardew's wife and daughters are apparently unsure about the new look but with one reporter commenting that "Newcastle's manager now radiates gravitas rather than Joop aftershave," it could be a while before he reaches for the razor.

2 More elemental force of nature than mere football manager, O'Neill has long offered a whole new definition of "hyper-active". Not any more. Life alongside Titus Bramble and company at Sunderland – aka England's reputed "depression capital" – seems to be taking its toll on a man whose side have not won in seven games and look in peril of relegation. Even worse, a once zestful figure appears to have lost his sense of humour in much the same way that Adam Johnson, Sunderland's £10m former England winger, has lost his touch. O'Neill resembles someone trapped in a lift, pressing assorted buttons more in hope than expectation that the doors will open. Can he rediscover his mojo by May?

3 The curtain is falling on the career of one of Europe's finest post-war goalscorers, so catch a glimpse of Michael Owen sitting on Stoke's bench while you can. Tony Pulis has hinted that the former England striker might be liberated from it before he retires in May. "Michael had injuries earlier in the season," says Stoke's manager. "But with eight games to go I'm hoping he can be involved as an impact substitute, coming on and scoring goals."

4 It will be strange not to see the soon-to-be-retired Carragher in a Liverpool shirt any more, so final sightings of one of the game's authentic good guys in action as Brendan Rodgers' side chase Europa League qualification should be cherished.

5 Villa's travails have coincided with their captain and key midfielder's year-long absence due to acute leukaemia. Villa Park still breaks into applause in the 19th minute of every home game – 19 is Petrov's number. Now in remission, he hopes to see Paul Lambert's side escape the drop before helping organise a charity match in Sofia which will pit a Bulgaria All Stars XI featuring Hristo Stoichkov and Dimitar Berbatov against a Villa old boys ensemble, with proceeds funding care for childhood leukaemia victims. Martin O'Neill, his old manager, has offered Petrov particularly staunch support so it promises to be an emotional day when Sunderland visit Villa Park for a prospective relegation six-pointer next month.

6 As Manchester United continue their ruthless procession to yet another title and Manchester City are reduced to a speck in their rear-view mirror, attention will turn to transfer speculation. Expect one name to keep cropping up: Cristiano Ronaldo. No one knows if he will swap Real Madrid for an Old Trafford return but that will not deter pundits discussing the possibility. Few can disagree that the Premier League is a weaker, poorer, paler place without him.

7 Assuming Manchester City secure a Champions League place and Everton get squeezed out of top-four contention, the race for third and fourth place looks an all-London affair. Unfortunately for Chelsea, Spurs and Arsenal three into two won't go. Much may depend on Gareth Bale staying on his feet and Jack Wilshere keeping fit but expect Rafael Benitez and Andre Villas-Boas to reinvigorate their reputations by earning admission to Europe's showpiece tournament. Meanwhile, the perceived ignominy of beckoning Europa League involvement will prompt an almighty debate about Arsene Wenger's future at Arsenal.

8 Harry Redknapp dominates every room he enters – along with the back pages. Countless trees have been felled in order to create a canvas for his wit and wisdom. No matter that QPR will probably go down, a small London club whose home has a capacity of only 18,000 will attract disproportionate media coverage this spring because of their larger than life manager. Brace yourself to read numerous QPR match reports that barely mention the opposition.

9 Anyone who watched Steven Taylor subdue Samuel Eto'o during Newcastle's Europa League win against Anzhi Makhachkala will appreciate how well the centre-half is playing. Taylor has excelled since returning from injury and, at 27, can prove the answer to Roy Hodgson's England defensive dilemmas. He received a late summons to the national squad last week and a series of strong domestic performances between now and May could persuade Hodgson that a player Fabio Capello mistakenly believed was a midfielder is a serious candidate for Brazil 2014.

10 Although infuriatingly inconsistent, Roberto Martinez's Wigan are far too imaginative and entertaining to be relegated. Moreover, were they to go down, the earth would surely stop spinning on its axis. Expect Martinez to devise a fiendish new formation and secure survival via a dramatic denouement at home to Villa on May 19...


Irish Independent

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