Sunday 19 November 2017

10 talking points ahead of this weekend's Premier League action

Two big derbies in a bid weekend of Premier League action. Whose season could be ruined at White Hart Lane? What will we get from Steven Gerrard in his last Merseyside Derby?

Whose season is going to be ruined at White Hart Lane?

Unusually, the mood at both Arsenal and Spurs is relatively positive at present. It cannot last. Arsenal are spluttering into post-January life, as Season Plan B dictates (start badly, come good, finish fourth).

It's probably better that way than Season Plan A (start unsustainably well, get hopes up, fall away, finish fourth), but there's still potential for a season-derailing game at White Hart Lane at lunchtime on Saturday.

Spurs have employed a version of Season Plan B, but whether their new-found breed of high-intensity competence can propel them into the Champions League places remain to be seen. Their one defeat in nine Premier League games suggests they have enough about them to beat Arsenal if Arsene Wenger's side are not at their best.

A win for either side could seriously disrupt the other side's season. A draw probably suits both, but will players and managers remember that in a derby atmosphere which is still reliably ferocious? Let's hope not. This should be the best meeting between these sides for some time.

Can derby day football supporters be trusted with a late kick-off?

Saturday's meeting between Everton and Liverpool has an unusual kick off time of 17.30. Games like these, deemed "high-risk" by the people who have to police them, tend to take place in an earlier slot, at a time when fans going to the game and watching it in pubs have had at most a couple of hours to refresh themselves beforehand.

This week a challenge to bring the game forward was over-turned, despite the worries of Merseyside police’s deputy chief constable Andy Cooke, who told the Liverpool Echo: “There’s plenty of evidence that the later the kick-off the more disorder we get. People in pubs across the city will be watching the game, a lot of them will be drinking for a long time prior to kick-off.”

A fair point, as is the extra cost that extra policing will require. But the way football supporters who attend games are treated by police is frequently infantalising and overly heavy-handed. Plenty of fans want a drink before the game.

The overwhelming majority manage to behave themselves at it. While the later kick-off does present challenges to the police, demonising supporters for the actions of a decreasing minority is not the answer. This fear around late kick-offs and crowd trouble is a relic from another era, and Everton and Liverpool supporters should demonstrate this on Saturday.

Can Aston Villa extend their inglorious run against Chelsea?

612 minutes and six games have passed since Aston Villa, by some distance the most goal-shy team in the top four divisions of English football, found the back, front or either side of the net.

Carles Gil was signed as a remedy; Rickie Lambert approached in the manner of a 40-year-old bachelor hunting desperately for a life partner in an unwelcoming bingo hall. With each passing minute, Villa's drought takes on more of a life of its own as a cult black comedy showing in the dreary cinema that is this season.

Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Diego Costa have all now scored more individually than the total goals Villa have managed this season. And they are up against a defence - Chelsea's - that has conceded fewer goals than anyone in the Premier League except Southampton. Good luck...


Are Manchester United really concentrating on the FA Cup?

Expect the reserves at West Ham at 16.15 on Sunday. Earlier this week, when asked where the FA Cup ranked in his priorities, Louis Van Gaal said: "This season - number one.

Everybody knows that - also for the players. It is fantastic to win." With a daunting trip to... Preston North End in the next round Van Gaal will be desparate to ensure that his star players avoid injury in the distracting Premier League... Possibly.

Expect the priority list to be shaken up significantly if United lose at Upton Park. If that happens and Arsenal and Southampton both win United finish the weekend outside of the top four.

Will sanity prevail at Loftus Road?

It's the league's best-run club against its basket case at Loftus Road at 3pm on Saturday. QPR will be led by a temporary management duo of Chris Ramsay and Kevin Bond. Southampton have an admired manager, a well-drilled team and more promising yongsters than the Under 25s category in the last five series of X Factor combined.

But they were unimpressive in losing at home to Swansea last weekend, failing to break down a determined defence. Rangers do not have that. They have shown every sign of being poorly coached, tactically under-nourished and lacking in steel for most of the season. Anything other than defeat for them would make no sense whatsover. They couldn't, could they?

Who fancies a shot at redemption with Crystal Palace?

Welcome to Croydon, the setting for a British footballing kitchen sink version of The Wrestler. Alan Pardew has adopted a coterie of tarnished forwards looking for perhaps their last shot at glory before their sporting lives are snuffed out with the finality of Thomas Cromwell taking a calloused finger to a candle wick.

Marouane Chamakh, Yaya Sanogo, Wilfried Zaha, Shola Ameobi - all have flattered and flirted and never quite managed to deceive during their top-flight careers. Each will need to fire if Pardew's fine start is going to build into something more permanent, to take Palace away from the bottom three. They will all have their chance away at Leicester at 3pm on Saturday, a game that could be crucial in the battle to avoid relegation.


Is Jonjo Shelvey the hero Swansea City need?

The England international (!) certainly has a little of the Bruce Wayne about him - narcissistic, occasionally brilliant, and with a dark side that sees him occasionally smite people in the face. Shelvey veers from brilliance to ineptitude with dizzying regularity, sometimes in the same move. But his goal that won Swansea the game against Southampton last weekend illustrated his quality. At home to Sunderland on Saturday he needs to be provide more wholesome, Superman-esque nourishment for Garry Monk, and less of the tortured, modern comic book histrionics.

Is Mark Hughes dangerously close to European football?

'Not the Europa League', the Stoke manager is presumably screaming to himself, silently, in a deserted basement somewhere in England's ceramics capital. But carry on performing as his side have been, and they may have no choice but to pack their Slovenian phrasebooks come July.

Stoke lie fifth in the Premier League's form table, with one loss in six - and they appear to be trucking on very nicely indeed without Bojan, who suffered a season-ending cruciate ligament injury against Rochdale. There's no in-out referendum on Europe for Stoke - only their form will decide. They face Newcastle away on Saturday.

How long does Steve Bruce have left?

As Hull manager, and before his next uninvited appearance at a wedding. Bruce's threadbare side stayed up with a modicum of comfort last season and reached an FA Cup final they probably should have won. That success should have been augmented by summer signings including Abel Hernandez, and a transfer fee busted on the broad back of Jake Livermore. Bruce is not Nostradamus - Robert Snodgrass, bought as a key cog in the side, has hardly featured due to injury - but a defeat, as looks likely, to Manchester City on Saturday could mean that his Hull tenure is over, as Elton John predicted, by half past six.

What will the viewing figures be for Burnley v West Brom?

Unfortunately Sky Sports don't publish figures for how many people watch their televisied matches, but you would imagine Burnley v West Brom at midday on Sunday won't be troubling any numbers with more than five figures.

Oddly, it's the second time this season these teams have been picked for Sky coverage against one another. The first match finished 4-0 to West Brom, so at least their might be goals. Although it should be stressed that said game took place before Tony Pulis arrived in the Black Country. He absolutely hates goals. Tune in, then, for long throws and Sean Dyche's award-winningly sore throat!

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