In the midst of a crowded calendar, with teams coming off midweek Premier League contests, W2W4 highlights the biggest storylines ahead of the weekend’s matches.
How far are Spurs behind the leaders?
“Eighteen points, it says it right there in the table!” I hear you cry. Of course, in a literal sense the gap to Manchester City is less of a pothole for Tottenham to skip over and more a yawning chasm that could stretch to 21 points — or seven victories, to give it more clarity — by the final whistle in Saturday’s late kickoff at the Etihad Stadium.
But while Mauricio Pochettino’s side may be closer to the bottom three than the Premier League podium at this juncture, is that a true reflection of their quality? There have been mitigating factors in a mixed start to the season, with the manager pointing the blame at the club’s protracted transfer business — that saw City poach Kyle Walker — and the adjustment to the new surroundings of Wembley Stadium. Throw in injuries to key players such as Victor Wanyama and Toby Alderweireld, plus Dele Alli’s loss of form and Harry Kane’s August curse, and it’s no wonder they have taken time to get up to speed.
Both Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte, perhaps with ulterior motives, have suggested at different stages in 2017 that Spurs are the strongest side in England, and their current run of three wins in the last eight Premier League matches certainly doesn’t paint the full picture. In a table for the calendar year, Pochettino’s outfit are second behind City, trailing the leaders by seven points having played a game more.
That points to City’s dominance in the current campaign, having smashed the record for consecutive victories with their 15th on the spin against an anaemic Swansea side in midweek. But if anyone can end that run, which included wins vs. Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United, it is Tottenham. They have already shown against Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League that if they play to the very best of their collective ability, they are a match for any opponent. And given their fast-fading hopes in the title race, they have little to lose in taking the game to City on Saturday.
It was Spurs who ended City’s six-game winning streak at the start of last season with a pulsating 2-0 victory at White Hart Lane, and they fought back to claim a 2-2 draw in Manchester in January. It should be Spurs who again provide the greatest test to Pep Guardiola’s side at the weekend, just as they appear set to run away with the Premier League crown.
Will a revitalised Mahrez maintain his excellent run?
Claude Puel has a habit of rejuvenating mercurial inverted wingers, having helped save Hatem Ben Arfa’s career at Nice and now restoring Riyad Mahrez’s confidence at Leicester. Four of the Algerian’s five goals this term have come after Puel’s appointment in October, with his strikes in back-to-back matches against Newcastle and Southampton hinting that he is nearing his coruscating form in the title-winning 2015-16 campaign.
Mahrez was unstoppable that season and, after links to Barcelona and Roma followed, it’s somewhat a surprise to see him still cutting inside the King Power pitch 18 months later. Puel has spoken of his plan to “seduce” the 26-year-old into committing his future to the Foxes, but he would surely settle for six months of his current form before a high-priced exit that suits all parties in the summer.
With Ben Arfa linked to a reunion with Puel after finding himself on the fringes at Paris Saint-Germain, there have been whispers of a potential swap deal in January. That, if anything, is an incentive for Mahrez to maintain his impressive recent displays when Leicester host Crystal Palace on Saturday.
Can Liverpool return to winning ways?
After putting 15 goals past Stoke, Brighton and Spartak Moscow, it looked as though Liverpool were finally hitting their stride. But the costly late draw in last week’s Merseyside derby, followed by two more dropped points at home to West Brom, have put the brakes on Jurgen Klopp’s side.
On the face of it, a trip to struggling Bournemouth — with no win in five matches — is the perfect fixture for the Reds to bounce back. Given the Cherries’ style of play, they are much more likely to come out and engage in a football match than Everton or West Brom, which could play right into Liverpool’s hands.
Remember last season, though, when the visitors blew a 3-1 lead in the last 15 minutes to lose 4-3. It was a result and performance that contributed to Loris Karius losing his place between the sticks, with Bournemouth defender Steve Cook admitting after the game that his team targeted the goalkeeper as a “weak link”. With Karius deputising for the injured Simon Mignolet against West Brom on Wednesday, it will be interesting to see if he keeps his place when Liverpool return to the scene of his greatest setback.
Will a midweek goal kick-start Lukaku’s form?
He may not have appeared to enjoy it much, but Romelu Lukaku’s header against Bournemouth lifted some of the pressure off his shoulders amid a difficult week for Manchester United. It was striker’s first tally in five Premier League matches, although he did contribute a couple of assists in that period — notably two for Manchester City in the derby. (Ouch.)
With United lacking fluency in recent games, and Lukaku struggling to rekindle the form that saw him hit 11 goals in his first 10 appearances for the club, Jose Mourinho will hope the striker’s goal in midweek sparks a new surge of confidence. Some of the criticism has been excessive; forget the fee, this is a 24-year-old footballer adjusting to higher expectations, the storied surroundings of an enormously successful club, along with new tactical systems that have yet to yield brilliant consistency from anyone in the squad.
If Lukaku can find the net against West Brom at the weekend, where he enjoyed a productive season on loan in 2012-13, it could help put his barren spell firmly behind him.
It was only a few weeks ago that Marco Silva was being talked up as the next big thing in Premier League management and linked with the vacancy at Everton, but four games without a win have seen Watford slide back down the table.
Silva has seemed particularly tetchy in his post-match news conferences recently, questioning Marvin Zeegelaar’s red card against Burnley and then suggesting Crystal Palace should have had Patrick van Aanholt sent off in Tuesday’s defeat at Selhurst Park. A win at home to Huddersfield, whose only victory on the road came on the opening day, should ease the manager’s frustrations.
Matthew Stanger covers European football for ESPN and is the editor of The Set Pieces. Twitter: @MatthewStanger