Big Midweek: Chelsea v Spurs, Salah, Man Utd, Clasico

Game to watch – Chelsea v Tottenham
An awful lot has changed in less than a year. At least for Chelsea. Last April the Blues suffered their first home defeat to Tottenham since 1990. Then, Antonio Conte was still at least nominally the manager, Willy Caballero was actually allowed on the pitch, they played a 3-5-2 with Victor Moses at wing-back, N’Golo Kante was a defensive midfielder, Cesc Fabregas was a Chelsea playmaker and Alvaro Morata was the lone striker. The one regrettable constant is Callum Hudson-Odoi coming off the bench for a few minutes at the end.

Chelsea could line up to face Spurs at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday with just five of the same players from that 3-1 defeat on April 1. Whether they have changed for the better or worse is up for serious debate, but the gulf between the two sides is roughly the same – Spurs are the top-four stalwarts and Chelsea are the chasers. It’s not a cloak Chelsea wear easily, and even without the side-show of Maurizio Sarri being done up like a Kepa by his goalkeeper, this game would be loaded with narrative.

As it stands, the focus will of course be on Sarri. First, with the selection of his goalkeeper, which will surely be the Spaniard unless he wants to poke a finger through the gossamer of the party line. There’s nothing to see here and so Kepa will face Spurs, presumably with most people in the ground convinced he is a c*** and letting him know at regular intervals.

As for Sarri, it seems unlikely that he would survive the 3-1 defeat that befell Conte’s troops in this fixture in April. So he now has a massive decision to make. Is it okay to employ the same tactics that almost worked at Wembley, even though this fixture is a) at home and b) against ‘lads, it’s only Tottenham’? The answer is ‘probably not’, but that leaves us with the very real possibility of Chelsea dominating the ball but then being undone by the finishing prowess of Harry Kane and Son Heung-Min. Certainly, that scenario would suit Spurs.

This could be Sarri’s last game as Chelsea manager, before he returns to Italy muttering about this impossible-to-motivate squad and an impossible-to-please English media. Or it could be the start of an unlikely charge back into the Champions League. Stay tuned.

 

Player to watch – Mo Salah
Although the issue has been exaggerated by those who write for newspapers aimed squarely at everybody other than Liverpool fans, there are several uncomfortable facts about Salah’s season that should worry those of a Red hue.

* Only one of Salah’s 17 Premier League goals this season has come against another Big Six side. And that was a penalty.

* He has failed to score twice against PSG, Manchester City and Manchester United, and once against Spurs, Chelsea and Bayern Munich this season.

* When he is not scoring goals, he looks like an amateur who has wandered into the pitch, his first touch a parody of a pub player.

The latter might not strictly be factual but it’s hard to argue with the notion that Salah has proved himself to be a great goalscorer rather than a great footballer in his second season at Liverpool. As such, he has struggled against the elite and – as Daniel Storey wrote in Winners and Losers – he ‘looks badly jaded, so ineffective at Old Trafford that Klopp eventually gave up screaming at him from the touchline and substituted him’. And it’s hardly surprising; he has played a remarkable amount of football this season for an attacking player who relies heavily on an explosion of pace.

And so to this week and Watford. Not an elite side, but in something approaching elite form. The statistics say that they are the sixth best team in the Premier League in 2019, making them marginally better than their opposition. This is no flat track; this really is a test. Of Liverpool. Or Jurgen Klopp. And particularly of Mo Salah.

 

Manager to watch – Marco Silva
“It is a really important game,” said Silva, henceforth known as The King of Understatement (not really, it’s too unwieldy), who said “let’s see during the match” when asked if it was a must-win game for an Everton side who have lost five of their last six games in all competitions. That’s really not how it works, fella; this is a must-win game because you have had 16 days without a match, a pretty negligible injury list and your opposition (Cardiff) have just been absolutely battered by Watford.

Everton are seven points from seventh and nine points from relegation. In theory they have nothing to play for. In reality they have everything to play for – Silva must prove that he knows how to turn this form on his head when there will be those at Everton wondering if something is irretrievably broken. This is now an 11-game season not just for Silva but for those players who could find themselves discarded by yet another new manager.

“We have to look at each match like a final,” said Silva. It’s not the usual mantra of a manager in 11th place, but this is not a club who takes very kindly to being in 11th place. The good news is that they could finish Tuesday in ninth, and that will look and feel a whole lot more palatable.

 

Team to watch – Manchester United
“Michael [Carrick] might be putting his boots on. It’s not as bad as needing me yet, but we’re alright, we’ll be fine,” said Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as he glanced down the list of unavailable players for Wednesday night’s clash with in-form Crystal Palace. It’s likely that United will be missing Ander Herrera, Jesse Lingard, Juan Mata, Marcus Rashford, Nemanja Matic and possibly Anthony Martial. In other words, five members of Solskjaer’s front six.

So that means Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez, Scott McTominay, Andreas Pereira and possibly even Fred. And you know things are bad when you start talking about Fred. But what it could mean is Angel Gomes and Tahith Chong, which makes United one hell of an interesting watch. It is also a free pass for Solskjaer, who will be praised for drafting in youngsters even when he has no choice. The arguments against a full-time appointment will be completely drowned out by the increasingly irritating strains of Waterfall if United win with the kids.

 

Football League game to watch – QPR v Leeds United
If Newcastle v Burnley is not your bag – and why should it be? – then leave BT to their mid-table stylings on Tuesday night and switch over to Sky Sports for the chance to see Leeds United return to the top of the Championship. And it won’t be easy, regardless of what the league table might suggest.

“It’s a very clear style,” said Marcelo Bielsa, who presumably has a pretty slim QPR dossier. “It’s a team that knows how they play with it. They know how to impose their skills. And definitely it is not going to be an easy game, they’re an experienced team and it will be a very demanding game.”

We’re sold.

 

European game to watch – Real Madrid v Barcelona
What’s better than a Clasico? A double Clasico of course, with the first instalment – a copa Clasico – taking place at the Bernabeu on Wednesday night. The score is 1-1 from the first leg. The good news for those of you who might be thinking that watching a Spanish cup game is a bloody stupid idea when Chelsea v Spurs is on the TV: this fella is in some kind of form…

 

Women’s game to watch – England v Brazil
The SheBelieves Cup is clearly the shittest name for any competition ever. It sounds like a menstruation device. But forget about the name and revel in England (FIFA ranking: 4th) warming up for clashes with the US (1st) and Japan (8th) with a clash against Brazil (10th).

It’s Marta. It’s Fran Kirby. And it’s on BBC Four. Watch it.

 

Sarah Winterburn

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