1) Gunn in line of fire for Norwich
Norwich’s hopes of following up on last weekend’s win over Everton by prevailing in Friday’s crucial six-pointer against Watford suffered a blow when it was confirmed Tim Krul would miss the game with a shoulder injury. While one goalkeeper’s misfortune is another’s opportunity, Norwich fans won’t take much confidence from Angus Gunn’s most recent spell deputising for Krul between the sticks, when it could be argued he could have done a lot better for four of the eight goals Norwich conceded in games against Arsenal and Crystal Palace over the festive period. “Gunny was disappointed with the results that we had in the two games that he played in,” said Dean Smith. “He has been working hard to get that opportunity back again and it has presented itself now, so he knows he has got to go and play well.” No pressure, Angus. BG
2) Rangnick tackles Ronaldo row?
Ralf Rangnick’s decision to substitute Cristiano Ronaldo in Manchester United’s 3-1 win against Brentford on Thursday dominated the post-match headlines. But this distracted attention from the more concerning issue for the manager: a first half in which Brentford battered United and could have been out of sight. Rangnick was seen trying to placate a visibly angry Ronaldo on the bench in the closing stages – a neat visual metaphor for the club’s seemingly intractable problems. Ronaldo currently wields disproportionate power in relation to his ability, like many other contemporary footballers, and it is debatable whether the United team is better with him in it. Sir Alex Ferguson helped to get Ronaldo’s return from Juventus over the line, and remains an influential presence, but as a manager he would simply not have tolerated such petulance from a player. Rangnick is seen as a footballing progressive but, if he is going to transform Old Trafford, Ronaldo is not the only towering figure from the club’s past whose influence should be reduced. LM
3) Gerrard and Ferguson reunited
Everton host Aston Villa at Goodison in Saturday’s lunchtime kick-off, a game in which Duncan Ferguson and Steven Gerrard renew hostilities for the first time since Liverpool beat Everton 3-1 in a Merseyside derby at Anfield in March 2006. On that occasion both men spent most of the game monitoring proceedings from the touchline – Gerrard was sent off after 18 minutes while “Big Dunc” came on as a second-half substitute. A mere 16 years later, they will again be watching from the sidelines as Everton’s caretaker manager attempts to arrest his team’s alarming slide towards the relegation zone and Aston Villa’s boss tries to end a run of four games without a win. With Gerrard’s managerial credentials already established, Ferguson needs the win more. Famously tight-lipped off the pitch as a player and never one for self-promotion, he will expect Everton’s underperforming players to help him stake a claim for a job many believe him to be to the manner born. BG
4) Spurs looking to outflank Chelsea
With Reece James and Ben Chilwell still out, a good way to get at Chelsea is by attacking down their sides. Brighton’s Tariq Lamptey and Marc Cucurella have had great fun at their expense in recent weeks, including in Tuesday’s draw at the Amex. Tottenham? Not so much. Chelsea coasted through both Carabao Cup semi-finals, with Matt Doherty suffering particular torment as Spurs’ left wing-back. But the Irishman showed on Wednesday how effective he can be in his preferred position on the right by contributing mightily to the extraordinary comeback against Leicester. He is at least as good a defender as Emerson Royal and more impactful than the Brazilian going forward – thanks to his aerial threat in particular. Marcos Alonso will not want Doherty to start at right wing-back when Spurs go to Stamford Bridge. PD
5) Saints’ new era facing stern test
Manchester City are locked on course for another league title but Southampton’s season remains one that may go either way. There is an air of optimism since the arrival of the Serbian media magnate Dragan Solak, but the euphoria of a thumping win over Brentford to welcome their new owner was tempered by defeat at Wolves last weekend. Solak has spoken of a long-term investment plan so although discussions are ongoing over signing Armando Broja from Chelsea, a January trolley dash looks highly unlikely. Ralph Hassenhüttl will hope to be backed in the transfer market come the end of the campaign, with the austerity of the Gao Jisheng years left behind, but the more pressing issue is steering his thin, inconsistent squad towards the top half. Considering the kind of fluent form that Pep Guardiola’s team are in, Saturday’s visit of the champions will most likely mean focusing on damage limitation. LM
6) Partey off as Arteta gamble fails
Mikel Arteta, like most managers, has railed against fixture congestion this season and the demands it places on players. But such complaints do not wash when he then chooses to bring on Thomas Partey a few hours after the player has got off a plane from Cameroon, where he had just contested three high-stakes Africa Cup of Nations matches in draining conditions. For the Ghanaian to be sent off for a couple of late challenges should not necessarily come as a surprise. Now, with Granit Xhaka also suspended, Arsenal again have a problem in central midfield for the visit of Burnley and, using his own logic, it is one partly of Arteta’s creation. Burnley, meanwhile, have certainly been well rested for the game, having played two league matches since 12 December. PD
7) Goals galore at Brentford?
As mentioned earlier, Brentford’s failure to convert a raft of first-half chances cost them dearly against Manchester United, while for all their good football Wolves were struggling to find the net with any sort of frequency until a recent glut of six goals in two games, against Sheffield United and Southampton. Only Burnley (16) and Norwich (10) have scored fewer than the 17 Premier League goals celebrated by Bruno Lage’s side this season, but with even the profligate – eight goals in 159 top-flight appearances – Adama Traoré getting on the scoresheet against Saints, the floodgates might finally have opened. While they lost against United, Brentford did at least see Ivan Toney end a run of eight games without a goal with his side’s late consolation. Saturday’s crowd at the Brentford Community Stadium could be treated to a glut of goals, even if the very suggestion here means a scoreless draw is probably guaranteed. BG
8) Palace still fragile at set pieces
When Crystal Palace lost 3-0 at Anfield in September, the goals were scored by Mohamed Salah, Naby Keïta and Sadio Mané. So the Africa Cup of Nations is well timed for Patrick Vieira, since all three of those players will still be away with their national teams when Liverpool head to Selhurst Park on Sunday. All three goals at Anfield came from set pieces, though, and fragility from those is a problem Vieira has not yet been able to solve fully. There’s also the fact that the most significant African absentee on Sunday could actually be Cheikhou Kouyaté, since Palace’s midfield is much weaker without the Senegal international. PD
9) Will Foxes rally after late collapse?
One way or another, Leicester’s spectacular stoppage-time collapse against Tottenham is likely to have a lasting impact. The under-strength Foxes were a few seconds from an unlikely victory, handed to them by James Maddison, before Steven Bergwijn’s double denied them even a single point. Will Brendan Rodgers’ side now pull together, collectively resolving not to throw points away in such careless fashion again? Or has their usual springtime slump arrived early this season? Brighton arrive looking buoyant, having got out of jail against Crystal Palace with a late goal in their 1-1 draw last Friday, before holding lavishly-funded Chelsea to a draw on Tuesday night. Following the shocking denouement against Spurs, now would be a good time for Leicester to prove they still belong in the scrap for Europe. LM
10) Newcastle shedding fear factor?
Eddie Howe needs to tell Newcastle players about the joys of the Championship. He should tell them they will love it, it will be a blast, the atmosphere at St James’ Park will be festive at every home match and, basically, everything’s going to be all right. Maybe then Newcastle’s players will stop fretting about relegation and will be able to play without fear. Too often this season – and
regardless of the manager – many Newcastle players have seemed so scared of making a mistake or failing that they have ended up doing just that. The symptoms are particularly noticeable when they take a lead: they often wind up cowering in their own half, neutered by the prospect of giving away their advantage. Last weekend’s draw against Watford was the latest of many examples. They need to learn how to play with abandon and Leeds, who have pulled nine points clear of the drop zone, will show them how. That is something for Newcastle to be enthused about. Or very afraid. PD