1) Who will be exposed in potential Anfield thriller?
During a Liverpool-Tottenham match at Anfield in May 2011 a man stripped off all his clothes – except his shoes and socks, because that would have been indecent – and ran out to frolic on the pitch. He was having a merry old time of it until Martin Skrtel and Lucas Leiva hurtled over and shoved him to the ground, from where he was scooped up by stewards. There may be a more recent example of strong and well-coordinated defending by Liverpool players but none spring to mind. There is definitely no more recent example of Tottenham winning at Anfield: their 2-0 victory in 2011 was their first in 18 years and they have not repeated it since. Indeed this season, for all their undoubted progress, they have yet to win away to any of the top six, losing at Chelsea and Manchester United and drawing at Manchester City and Arsenal. This is their last major away trip of the season (although April’s visit to Burnley will be no picnic) and a victory would fuel belief that Mauricio Pochettino is turning Tottenham into a truly formidable outfit. Jürgen Klopp, meanwhile, needs his players to produce a performance that will renew faith in him. A match in which both teams are committed to chasing victory could suit both sides and thrill onlookers. PD
2) Watford hope Cleverley does it at Old Trafford
Back in September, Watford dispatched Manchester United 3-1 at Vicarage Road. The picture has improved for United since while Watford, newly confident after wins over Arsenal and Burnley, remain one of those sides from which anything seems possible. There is certainly an extra sharpness to their attacking play and while M’Baye Niang, the impressive loanee from Milan, has made early headlines, the role of Tom Cleverley, pulling the strings in midfield, cannot be discounted. Cleverley, back at Watford for a second spell after spending a successful 2009-10 season there while contracted to Manchester United, has instantly looked at home and may feel he has something extra to prove at Old Trafford. The 27-year-old has had a curious career, never quite coming up with the kind of substance he has occasionally promised, but may provide the kind of mobility and continuity Watford’s midfield has lacked and has proved an effective partner to Étienne Capoue so far. When Cleverley is fit and confident he looks a more than capable Premier League player; perhaps Watford bring out the best in him, something that he would presumably not mind underlining if the Hornets provide a sting in the tail on his old stomping ground. NA
3) Will Allardyce bring positive change to Palace at Stoke?
In the last week Crystal Palace players have been abused by fans, upbraided by their chairman and had a trip to Dubai cancelled lest it be seen as a reward for putrid performances. Morale must be low. Perhaps the sight of a Stoke City jersey will give them a lift? Palace have a strangely excellent recent record against the Potters, winning six of their past seven meetings and drawing the other one. The last encounter was a 4-1 clobbering that seemed to confirm that Stoke, not Palace, were set for an undignified battle against relegation this season. That was back in September and in the days following the defeat the Stoke chairman, Peter Coates, felt the need to relieve the pressure on Mark Hughes by going public to quash talk of the sack. Hughes has since put Stoke back on track. Palace, meanwhile, have deteriorated and changing manager has so far done nothing to stop the rot. If Stoke were to overcome their Palace blues and win this weekend, it would be a nice way to reinforce the point that it sometimes pays to keep faith with a manager. As a longstanding board member of the League Managers’ Association, Sam Allardyce will certainly appreciate that. PD
4) Will new manager make difference at Arsenal?
As longstanding board members of the League Managers’ Association such as Sam Allardyce may or may not say, sometimes ditching a manager and hiring a new one turns out to be a smart move. Allardyce must surely feel a glow of pride, for instance, at the impact that his comrade Marco Silva has had so far on Hull City. Hull seemed a hopeless case when the Portuguese took over in January – bottom of the league and on a run of one win in 10 matches – but now they are 18th in the table, above Palace as it happens, and could climb out of the relegation zone with a positive result this weekend. And after drawing at Manchester United and beating Liverpool in their last two outings, who is to say Hull cannot gain a point or more at the Emirates? Answer: it is up to Arsenal to say that. Silva’s side will definitely come equipped with organisational and mental steel – but will Arsenal? Any failure by the home side to prove their superiority is sure to intensify calls for Arsenal to change manager, too. PD
5) Resurgent Swans riffing on Leicester’s pain
Having climbed out of the relegation zone by winning three of their five games since the arrival of Paul Clement, Swansea City must be enthused the prospect of entertaining a Leicester City side whose manager and senior players have acknowledged the tailspin from which they are struggling to extricate themselves. By contrast, Swansea’s players could scarcely appear more galvanised under, and united behind, Clement, who has quickly settled on his preferred starting XI with impressive results. Following the pick ‘n’ mix approaches of Francesco Guidolin and Bob Bradley, he has named the same side for Swansea’s past three games and they have yet to let him down. His forays into the transfer market have also proved astute, with Martin Olsson, Luciano Narsingh and Tom Carroll all impressing since their arrival at the Liberty Stadium. In further good news for Swans fans, the deadline-day acquisition Jordan Ayew has reported for duty upon his return from the Africa Cup of Nations, where he boosted his confidence after a patchy spell at Aston Villa with an absolute belter for Ghana against DR Congo. “For the past three or four years I have been all over the place,” he said, explaining a decision to move to Swansea that was influenced by his brother (and their former player) André. “I need stability and I think this is the perfect place for me to grow and improve in a lot of aspects. I think I made a wonderful choice.” Previously considered by many to be dead and buried, this corpse-turned-undertaker looks a good bet to lower the hapless reigning champions even further into the Premier League abyss. BG
6) Weakened Burnley aim to make home comforts count
Chelsea could have faced Burnley at a worse time. Sean Dyche has a decidedly slimline set of midfielders to pick from: Jeff Hendrick, sent off at Watford last week, is suspended while Dean Marney remains sidelined and Steven Defour is a major doubt. It means Ashley Westwood will probably partner Joey Barton for his first start since joining from Aston Villa, while on the left there could be an appearance for Robbie Brady; on paper that is not a bad bunch of options but they will need to hit the ground running quickly against the runaway leaders. In Burnley’s favour is that their home record is the third-best in the Premier League; they have won nine of their 13 games and that, given their catastrophic away return of one point from 11, is the sole reason for their impressive league position. It is quite a discrepancy and speaks of the fact that, regardless of the personnel involved, Turf Moor can generate the kind of atmosphere and intensity that put opponents on the back foot. This will be the biggest test yet of Burnley’s home comforts and Chelsea ought to be too strong – but it is exactly the kind of situation Dyche and company have revelled in over the past six months. NA
7) Mings can only get better
Having endured the recall of loanee Nathan Aké to Chelsea and seen his second-string side get thumped by Millwall in the FA Cup, Eddie Howe tried to placate Bournemouth fans by pointing out the players thumped by the League One side were unlikely to be called upon for future Premier League games. Despite these reassurances, Tyrone Mings has since started and finished three of them, in which he has gone so far as to score one of the 11 goals his team have conceded. Of course he has not been singlehandedly culpable for his side’s defensive concerns, but if Mings has the necessary aptitude for playing English top-flight football he has thus far kept it well hidden. Alongside him in Bournemouth’s porous back four, Brad Smith, another veteran of the Millwall gubbing, has also completed two of the club’s four games since that grim afternoon at the Den. Howe was widely expected to draft in defensive cover in January, but recruited no one and actually loaned Marc Wilson out to West Brom. With his team shipping goals for fun, things are looking bleak for Bournemouth in both the long- and short-term. Their defence is low on confidence and quality, while the Manchester City striker Gabriel Jesus is coming to town. Even if Howe did, as reported, enquire after Mamadou Sakho and Joe Gomez without success in January, his failure to identify and recruit additional defenders from somewhere – anywhere – in January already smacks a little of negligence. BG
8) Saints need Gabbiadini to match Defoe effect
These are uncertain times for Southampton, who beat Leicester and Liverpool in January – along with plenty of others – but appear to be going nowhere fast and would be on the brink of trouble with a third consecutive league defeat. They have already lost six in seven and Sunderland, emboldened by a draw with Tottenham and that crushing 4-0 win at Crystal Palace, do not look ideal opponents at this stage. It is tightening up at the bottom and if Sunderland’s revival, which may be coming a couple of months earlier than normal, continues on Saturday they will be only five points behind Claude Puel’s side. While there was encouragement in a thumping debut finish by Manolo Gabbiadini in last weekend’s home loss to West Ham the presence of José Fonte in the opposition defence was another suggestion that the number of high-profile departures the Saints have had to absorb is becoming unsustainable. Gabbiadini may need to step up regularly to haul them up the table – no Southampton player bar the injured Charlie Austin has scored more than four goals in the league so far this season – and might take inspiration from the miracles Jermain Defoe is producing with Sunderland. Defoe, who scored two utterly trademark goals at Selhurst Park, has provided 14 of the Black Cats’ return of 24; with someone in anything like that kind of form, Southampton would be just fine. NA
9) A West Brom test at West Ham
West Brom travel to the London Stadium to take on a team that sit just one place and five points below them in the table, with an identical number of goals scored. There the similarities end, as West Ham have conceded 12 more goals in a season of wild swings of form compared to West Brom’s slow and steady approach to points accumulation. With neither side in any real danger of qualifying for the Europa League or going down, it is difficult to make predictions about a game that could go either way. In West Bromwich they talk of little else but who – if anyone – will be forced to make way from the heart of Tony Pulis’s defence when Jonny Evans makes his imminent return from injury. A match with little or nothing else riding on it for either team involved ought to at least help the man make up his mind. BG
10) We need to talk about Middlesbrough
If the Premier League was a party, Middlesbrough would arrive empty-handed and spend all night sulking in the kitchen. It seems quite an achievement for any team to plod this far through a season without making any sort of particularly good or bad impression on the wider public consciousness whatsoever, but Middlesbrough have somehow pulled it off. Their longest winning streak is one game. Their longest losing streak is three. They have beaten only one of the 14 teams above them in the table: Bournemouth, who are 14th. No team have scored fewer goals, but the nearest thing to a complete humiliation they’ve suffered has been a 3-0 defeat. Not one of their players has captured the public imagination for being particularly good or bad, while their highest scorer needs three more goals to hit double figures and only one of their players has been sent off. Perhaps most disappointingly, the nearest their manager – who learned his trade at the knee of José Mourinho – has come to generating any sort of entertaining controversy came when he levelled some mild criticism at his own team’s fans. Needless to say, he subsequently ruined it all by apologising. While Boro fans will almost certainly bristle at this rumination on the pointlessness of their team’s Premier League existence, they must surely have hoped for more upon securing promotion last season. Football is, after all, an entertainment business and they have been given precious little good or bad to stir the soul in this campaign. Indeed, looking ahead to their weekend match against Everton, perhaps the most remarkable thing about Middlesbrough is that there is absolutely nothing remarkable about them at all. BG