Sport

Premier League: 10 issues to seem out for this weekend

1) Arteta and Klopp seek to salvage campaigns

If anyone had told Mikel Arteta that last season’s gap between Arsenal and Liverpool – 43 points – would narrow to four by early April he would have been forgiven for envisaging an unlikely title battle. The truth from Arsenal’s perspective is far more mundane; Liverpool’s slump is the story and they travel to the Emirates in urgent need of a win that might recharge their top-four hopes. They cannot afford to drift any further behind Chelsea so this weekend is probably all about keeping pace, given Thomas Tuchel’s side face West Brom, This is not a fixture Arteta or Jürgen Klopp would have wanted on the back of an international break; Arsenal may be without Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe, two of their biggest reasons to think a push for the Europa League is still on, and a nervy affair could be in prospect. Both teams’ campaigns are on the line, but not in the way either would wish. NA

2) Iheanacho returns to haunt Manchester City?

Kelechi Iheanacho is back. But then, he has always shown an uncanny eye for goal, from the moment he scored Manchester City’s last-minute winner at Crystal Palace in September 2015, netting 54 seconds after coming on with his first shot on target in the Premier League. By the end of the following season, the Nigerian had 12 league goals to his name from only 19 shots on target, a ludicrous conversion rate that convinced Leicester to take out their chequebook. He is simply not a man to chance his arm: he shoots when he’s pretty sure he can score. Recently he has shown this once again, scoring seven goals in Leicester’s last four games in all competitions from eight shots on target. He has had just 11 shots on target since 3 December, but has scored nine goals. In his entire career there have only been three club matches when he has had more than one shot on target and still failed to score. In short, Manchester City should probably keep a close eye on him. But then, they knew that already. SB

Kelechi Iheanacho has been in lethal form for Leicester, including a hat-trick against Sheffield United.

Kelechi Iheanacho has been in lethal form for Leicester, including a hat-trick against Sheffield United. Photograph: Alex Pantling/PA

3) Heckingbottom heads back to Elland Road

Paul Heckingbottom had big dreams in February 2018 when he went into his first match as manager of Leeds United. Sadly, he lost it 2-1 to Sheffield United and that set the tone for a short and glum reign at Elland Road. After just four months Leeds decided on a change of direction, jilting Heckingbottom to hire none other than Marcelo Bielsa. It’s fair to say that decision has worked out pretty well for Leeds. Heckingbottom, meanwhile, finds himself heading back to Elland Road on Saturday as caretaker manager of Sheffield United. It would do his reputation the power of good if he presided over a win, but that would entail inspiring something exceptional from a side who are doomed to relegation and appeared numbed by the loss of Chris Wilder when losing 5-0 to Leicester in their last league match. PD

Related: ‘It’s nip and tuck’: the Championship’s final wild dash for promotion

4) Gallagher a costly absentee for Allardyce

Sam Allardyce has settled on a remarkably predictable starting line-up in recent weeks. From Sam Johnstone in goal to Mbaye Diagne up front, theirs has surely become the easiest of all top-flight XIs to predict. For this game Allardyce will have to change his formula, with the on-loan midfielder Conor Gallagher unable to play against his parent club, Chelsea. Allardyce recently praised the 21-year-old, noting that “the pressure of defeats doesn’t seem to be affecting him much”. That is possibly because Gallagher knows the most significant impact of those defeats – relegation – is not likely to affect him. Allardyce has also made the case for Gallagher staying at the Hawthorns into next season: “He would be better off being with us. When you lose more than you win, it makes you tougher and more determined. It will only stand him in good stead.” West Brom’s already remote chances of winning at Stamford Bridge will be further reduced by his absence, with Robert Snodgrass likely to come in. SB

Conor Gallagher has impressed at West Brom even with the Baggies mired in the relegation zone.

Conor Gallagher has impressed at West Brom even with the Baggies mired in the relegation zone. Photograph: Peter Powell/EPA

5) Cavani’s United return could be timely

Manchester United have played 10 games since the Valentine’s Day draw with West Brom but Edinson Cavani has completed only 102 minutes in that time. His fitness problems have been a cause of frustration and United could do with him firing on all cylinders, given Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood all returned early from international duty with problems of their own. Cavani has a decent enough return of one top-flight goal in every three appearances this season: the door is open for him to help break down a well-structured Brighton on Sunday. If he makes a meaningful impact he could also keep himself in the frame for a new contract. It has been a short, occasionally controversial spell in England for the 34-year-old. Time is running out for him to apply a more positive sheen. NA

6) Tension on the touchline at St James’ Park

After slumping into an existential crisis, Spurs’ players managed to rouse themselves and deliver “the basics of life” as they beat Aston Villa in their last outing, relieving the pressure on José Mourinho – at least temporarily. The Newcastle manager, Steve Bruce, urgently needs to inspire, cajole or provoke something similar from his players on Sunday. Another performance like the one in the 3-0 defeat to Brighton would intensify their relegation fears and poison the mood around St James’s Park even more. This is likely to be a tense and tetchy contest, and afterwards at least one of the managers is likely to hear yet more demands for him to be sacked. PD

Steve Bruce and José Mourinho find themselves in similar positions before Sunday’s meeting.

Steve Bruce and José Mourinho find themselves in similar positions before Sunday’s meeting. Photograph: Owen Humphreys/AP

7) Will Mitrovic get Fulham chance?

Fulham missed a chance to clamber out of the relegation zone against Leeds in their last game but if Scott Parker wants any help in keeping his players’ spirits up, he need only point to the example of Aston Villa, who stayed up last season despite being four points from safety with four matches remaining. Fulham might also take encouragement from Villa’s recent mini-slump, but the bad news for them is that Jack Grealish is expected to be back for Sunday’s clash. Grealishtore Parker’s team apart when Villa won 3-0 at Craven Cottage in September, after which Fulham’s chairman, Tony Khan, apologised for the state of their defence. Those problems have been addressed pretty well but now Fulham need to score more often. Could Aleksandar Mitrovic’s form during the international break, when he scored five goals in three matches, convince Parker to give the Serb his first Premier League start for two months? PD

Related: Which Premier League clubs have the hardest and easiest run-ins?

8) Ancelotti getting the best out of Richarlison

Richarlison has scored in four of his last six league games, and this week claimed that his increased attacking influence was down to him flouncing into Carlo Ancelotti’s office earlier in the season. “I went to speak to the boss and said I was doing a lot of marking, defending a lot,” the Brazilian said. “I was back there with Yerry Mina. I said I wanted to be closer to the opponent’s goal, closer to the box. He changed my positioning and that’s when the goals started flowing.” Meekly submitting to a young forward’s whims doesn’t seem like Ancelotti’s style, but the stats tell another story. Richarlison was taking more touches in the opposition’s penalty area in 2020; since the turn of the year, he has increased his involvement in his own penalty area. If the Italian has managed to convince Richarlison he is doing less defending while simultaneously making him do more defending, that really would be very cunning indeed. SB

Richarlison appeals for a penalty during Everton’s home defeat to Burnley.

Richarlison appeals for a penalty during Everton’s home defeat to Burnley. Photograph: Gareth Copley/Reuters

9) Saints aim to secure safety with Wembley in mind

Southampton and Burnley are side-by-side in the table, both on 33 points and both a couple of wins – at most – away from dispelling any doubts about their Premier League futures. This would be a good time to make things all but safe, particularly for a Saints side that would love toplay their FA Cup semi-final against Leicester without any other nagging concerns. Ralph Hasenhüttl’s team briefly went top of the league five months ago but have nosedived. Their only win in a dozen games came against Sheffield United and the end of this league campaign cannot really come quickly enough. Given they play West Brom after facing Sean Dyche’s side, the next week offersSaints opportunity to haul themselves over the survival line. It is hardly the loftiest of ambitions but, given they could yet reach a cup final, they can clear the way for a sparkling end to the season. NA

10) Improving Wolves to test Hammers’ credentials

After flopping against Manchester United and dropping a three-goal lead against Arsenal, David Moyes needs his team to rediscover winning ways fast if he is to guide West Ham to Champions League qualification. A repeat of the 4-0 win over Wolves in September would do nicely, but that was arguably Wolves’ most ragged performance under Nuno Espírito Santo. Players who had stinkers that day have regained their powers, notably João Moutinho, who has been in impeccable form after appearing to be on the wane earlier in the season. Rúben Neves has been strong, too, so the midfield duel between the Portuguese pair and West Ham’s Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek could be a doozy. If Adama Traoré, particularly ineffective in September’s loss, can give Aaron Cresswell as much trouble as he gave Andy Robertson in Wolves’s last match (a narrow home defeat to Liverpool), then West Ham’s Champions League prospects could fade further. PD

Pos

Team

1

Man City

2

Man Utd

3

Leicester

4

Chelsea

5

West Ham

6

Tottenham Hotspur

7

Liverpool

8

Everton

9

Arsenal

10

Aston Villa

11

Leeds

12

Crystal Palace

13

Wolverhampton

14

Southampton

15

Burnley

16

Brighton

17

Newcastle

18

Fulham

19

West Brom

20

Sheff Utd

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