Game to watch – Manchester United v Liverpool
Jose Mourinho uncharacteristically paused to gather his thoughts before fielding a difficult question. “They have control of their destiny. We don’t have control of our destiny,” came the response.
“I prefer to be in their position because if they win, they’re top of the league,” he continued, downplaying the title prospects of a Chelsea side that were seven points clear in first, having played 29 games. They led both Liverpool and Arsenal by seven points each, and Manchester City, who had played three games less, by nine.
Liverpool’s collapse in that 2013/14 season spared Mourinho the lasting ignominy of a genuine failure. But his words have a renewed relevance as his former side prepare to host the team who effectively sealed his Old Trafford fate.
Manchester City will happily extol the virtues of having points on the board, while Liverpool have gladly fallen back on the benefits of their game in hand. But the perennial argument will be rendered null and void by the time City kick-off in the League Cup final on Sunday.
Liverpool have played just one Premier League game since City returned to the top of the table at the start of the month with a win over Everton. The Reds beat Bournemouth 3-0 to remind critics that this is a marathon being run at sprint speed. But City’s response was emphatic: they beat Chelsea 6-0 the following day.
While Jurgen Klopp cannot possibly hope for a similar scoreline against Manchester United, he will know that a positive result of any kind gives Liverpool the initiative. The Reds ought not to be too proud of playing for a draw; even a one-point lead would feel significant in this race.
United will be an entirely different proposition from when they last met. A 3-1 defeat at Anfield was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Mourinho in December, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has won 11 of his 13 matches in charge since.
Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham have already been vanquished by a manager whose honeymoon period points to a potentially successful and lasting marriage. The defeat to PSG was a chastening experience, but a solitary blot on an otherwise faultless report card.
Liverpool will be their biggest test yet, and the best possible yardstick of how far they have come in such a short space of time. They went into their last meeting with low expectations yet were still deflated by the end. This time they at least have a chance of standing their ground. And they might have to: for all their incredible work in clawing back up to fourth, both Arsenal and Chelsea are only a point behind.
If either or both of Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial are back, Old Trafford will expect another scintillating counter-attacking performance led by Marcus Rashford, but potentially thwarted by the returning Virgil van Dijk. The improved Victor Lindelof will hope to keep an imposing Liverpool forward line as blunted as it was in midweek. David de Gea and Alisson can hopefully go someway to settling their interminable debate. And the Mailbox will be anticipating the titanic midfield battle between Paul Pogba and Jordan Henderson.
United will just be glad their campaign extends beyond simply trying to prevent their bitter rivals from winning the title; they have genuine prospects of their own beyond spoiling any potential parties. Liverpool will be desperate to prove their game in hand was always more than a distracting safety net. By full-time, one of these sides will be in complete control of their own destiny once more.
Other game to watch – Chelsea v Manchester City
It remains to be seen just what effect Malmo, Manchester United, Newport and Schalke-shaped buffers have, but history suggests that facing Manchester City twice in quick domestic succession is not particular good for your health.
If one game against Pep Guardiola’s side drains your body, an immediate sequel only increases the pressure on your mind. Maurizio Sarri admitted on Thursday that Chelsea “have paid for two weeks” in the aftermath of that 6-0 mauling at the Etihad Stadium. The scars will have barely healed by Sunday’s trip to Wembley.
City faced Arsenal in last season’s League Cup final, then took them on in the Premier League four days later. Both games ended in 3-0 victories as the Gunners were taught a lesson then held back for detention.
Chelsea must hope their worst and City’s best game coincided in the Premier League, where it is possible to overcome such devastating setbacks over the course of a season. A knockout competition offers no such instant redemption, and the League Cup final will largely depend upon certain variables on the day.
Fourteen days will have passed since the Blues suffered the worst Premier League defeat in their history, and they surely cannot possibly be as bad as they were at the Etihad Stadium. Even if these players have lost belief in this manager, personal and professional pride would not allow another implosion.
It would also be typical of Chelsea to claim a trophy against all odds. They have won silverware in 11 of the past 15 seasons under seven different manages. They and City are modern magpies.
Yet these two sides have never met in a final, with no disrespect to the Community Shield or Full Members’ Cup. It will be the first of Sarri’s career and the 22nd of Guardiola’s, another clash between two managers from distinctly different backgrounds.
For Guardiola and City, it represents just another step towards a lasting dynasty. For Sarri and Chelsea, it could well be one last swansong, a final attempt to see if there is a spark of some sort to work with. The stage is set.
Player to watch – Mesut Ozil
The reaction was predictably over the top, but Unai Emery’s point was fair and reasoned: if Mesut Ozil wants to become prominent again in this Arsenal side, he must prove both his fitness and his worth.
Before Thursday, the German had played 56 more minutes more than Carl Jenkinson in all competitions since October 31. Whether his reputation as a fairweather player, one who picks and chooses when he plays, is fair is immaterial: opinions on either side are now so entrenched that they will likely never change.
He hardly shone against BATE but he was still influential, creating three chances and misplacing just nine passes in only his third full 90-minute appearance since September.
Whether he can stabilise Arsenal’s Premier League season is another matter. It was in the reverse fixture against Southampton when Ozil reached what may have been the nadir of a disappointing season. Brought on with 21 minutes remaining at 2-2, he proceeded to play a huge part in Charlie Austin’s winning goal to bring Arsenal’s 22-game unbeaten run to an abrupt halt.
The challenge now is to simply prove he is ready to start consecutive games for the first time this year. The only certainty is that both he and Arsenal need each other at their best to keep their respective campaigns on track.
Manager to watch – Jan Siewert
Only six teams have avoided Premier League relegation after having 20 points or less by the end of February. Wigan (2011/12) and West Ham (2006/07) both staved off the drop after reaching that exact mark, while Fulham (2007/08) stayed up having earned just 19 points as March began.
Huddersfield might look to Leicester (2014/15), Portsmouth (2005/06) or West Brom (2004/05) for inspiration in their unlikely bid to remain in the top flight, but each of those clubs had 18 points by the end of February in their respective seasons. With two games left in the month, the Terriers sit on just 11 points.
A trip to Newcastle is perhaps the least daunting of their final 12 games before the expected drop back into the Championship. If survival is not an attainable mark, then the bar must be set a little lower. And they don’t come much lower than Derby’s points total in the 2007/08 season.
The Rams are regarded as the worst Premier League team in history after picking up just 11 points in 38 forgettable games. Huddersfield will be eager to at least surpass that mark sooner rather than later.
There are similarities between the two sides. While Town unexpectedly and brilliantly survived in their first top-flight season, both came up through the play-offs and were given no chance. Derby swapped uninspiring British managers mid-season, while Huddersfield traded continental coaches at the halfway point. The Rams had scored 13 goals and conceded 55 after 26 games; the Terriers are currently on 14 goals scored and 48 conceded at the same point.
Huddersfield will not and should not reduce the rest of their season to earning that single point to push them beyond Derby. Survival, however unlikely, remains the end goal, and they will justifiably see Newcastle as a team they can conceivably beat. The Magpies have won just four of their last 15 home games, and their last three meetings with Huddersfield have ended 1-0.
But hell, even a goal would be nice: the only club in the top seven levels of the English football pyramid to score less often on their league travels this season is Halesowen, second-bottom of the Southern League Central Division. After having more shots on target against Arsenal (seven) than in his previous two matches combined (four), Siewert will hope the extra week afforded to him to work with his new players has paid off.
Team to watch – Tottenham
It feels like an age since Tottenham tore Borussia Dortmund apart at Wembley in their last game. The ten-day break they will have enjoyed by the time they travel to Burnley will be their fourth-longest period in between matches all season.
On the last two occasions they went ten days or more without a game, they returned with a victory. Wins over West Ham (1-0) and Chelsea (3-1) came after respective October and November international breaks that afforded a stretched squad with a 14-day rest each time.
Mauricio Pochettino will hope that such consistency is the rule, and that a 2-1 defeat to Liverpool after a 12-day pause in September was the exception. Tottenham could end the week just two points behind a Premier League-leading Manchester City having played the same number of games as both them and Liverpool, provided they treat Burnley as more than a minor bump in the road.
Only Manchester United (nine games) are on a longer unbeaten league run than the Clarets (seven games), who have picked up as many points as Tottenham since December 29. The return of Tom Heaton to the starting line-up has rejuvenated a side who look back to their belligerent best. Spurs will hope Harry Kane’s imminent comeback is even half as successful.
Even when Burnley were at their lowest ebb, it took a stoppage-time winner from Christian Eriksen for Tottenham to secure all three points when these two sides met at Wembley in two months ago. Pochettino praised the “energy”, “character”, “belief” and “faith” of a side who refused to give up then; they have only improved since.
Burnley most certainly have too, but Tottenham should still be too strong. They have won more league games away from home this season (11) than any side in Europe’s top five leagues, with only Manchester City (16) managing more in the whole of the last Premier League campaign. Their lack of a stadium, a place to truly call home, has certainly worked in their favour.
But this is also the start of a season-defining run in which they face Chelsea (a), Arsenal (h), Dortmund (a), Southampton (a) and Liverpool (a) before the end of March, with a rescheduled game against Crystal Palace (h) to fit in somewhere too. If they are still in touch with Liverpool and Manchester City after that, only a fool would consider this a two-horse title race.
Football League game to watch – West Brom v Sheffield United
As Derby happily embark on their annual post-December collapse and Leeds scramble to prevent the wheels coming off their own promotion bandwagon, the margins at the top of the Championship are becoming ever tighter. Those as far down as Swansea in 13th might still harbour distant hopes of a play-off spot, but the top four looks like something of a closed shop.
At least one of Norwich (1st) or Bristol City (6th) will drop points when they meet at Carrow Road on Saturday, while Leeds (3rd) and Middlesbrough (5th) both face teams ensconced firmly in the bottom half. So West Brom (4th) and Sheffield United (2nd) will be eager to capitalise on any slips or stumbles.
Darren Moore said that the Baggies “had to be at our best” to beat the Blades in a Bee Gees-inspired clash in December, with Gareth Barry and Kieran Gibbs scoring for the visitors. Sheffield United have lost just once in 11 games since, and will be keen to exact some revenge on a direct rival.
European game to watch – Borussia Dortmund v Bayer Leverkusen
Jurgen Klopp had to learn it from somewhere. The German has seen his current side waste a nine-point lead on December 26 at the top of the Premier League to fall into second on goal difference by February, and a similar fate might soon befall his former team.
Borussia Dortmund led the Bundesliga by that same nine-point margin on December 15, but the gap has been whittled down to just three points in little over two months. Bayern Munich play first this weekend, and can draw level on points with their bitter enemies by beating Hertha Berlin.
A first league defeat of the season to Fortuna Dusseldorf on December 18 did not send Dortmund into an immediate tailspin – they won their next three games – but it did pierce their air of invincibility. Dortmund have not won in their last five games, following up their Tottenham humbling with the limpest of away draws against Nurnberg.
Such complacency will be punished against Leverkusen, who themselves beat Bayern at the start of the month. They are currently fifth and hunting down the final Champions League qualification spot.
Manager Peter Bosz will need no added incentive, having summarily failed in his six short months in charge of Dortmund in 2017. Since he was appointed Leverkusen manager on December 23, no Bundesliga side has a better record. Dortmund must stem the tide before it’s too late.