- Burnley Can Do A Bradford
It would seem that Chelsea’s grip on a fourth Premier League title has only tightened during a period in which they’ve been far from their best this calendar year, but after a week that put the club in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons following a fiercely contested first-leg in the last-16 of the Champions League, Burnley can travel south intent on replicating the attacking abandon that worked so successfully for Bradford last month in the FA Cup.
The Blues have looked far from impenetrable at home in recent weeks, muddling their way through games in the absence of key players through a combination of form, injuries and suspensions. The siege mentality built up at the Bridge, and indeed the return of the banned Diego Costa, might make Chelsea a wounded animal, but expect Sean Dyche to stick by his philosophy of having a real go at, irrespective of the gulf in class.
- Yaya’s Back With Bony
No sooner had the returning champion set foot back on English soil than stories began to emerge that the talismanic midfielder was once more considering his options. Yaya Toure can afford a broad smile after leading Ivory Coast to their first Africa Cup of Nations tournament win since 1992, but he must now channel that euphoria into Premier League points that will reinvigorate his side’s title defence.
The Stoke City victory aside, City have struggled in his absence – failing to win any of the six other Premier League games in which he has not played. With another date with Barcelona to come in the week, the visit of Newcastle to the Etihad must be treated as a dry run. Now is the time for Manuel Pellegrini’s side to click into gear, and with Wilfried Bony available for the first time since his £28m switch from Swansea, coupled with only four senior defenders being available for the Magpies, don’t expect a repeat of the Capital One defeat earlier this season.
- Sinking Swans
While the wealth of attacking options at City makes the validity of Toure’s overarching influence open to debate, the void left at the Liberty Stadium by Bony’s departure is undeniable. Swansea are boosted by the return of Gylfi Sigurdsson from suspension for the visit of Manchester United this weekend, but with the side comfortably 12 points above the relegation zone, it is hard not to draw a sense that Garry Monk is embarking on a period of rebuilding well in advance of the summer break.
In the short-term, having not reinvested a sizeable chunk of the Wilfried windfall, the reboot looks set to come in fits and starts, with results as inconsistent as the improbable victory at Southampton as meek surrenders at Blackburn and West Brom. The Swans face a United side defeated only once in 19 games with Bafetimbi Gomis leading the line having gone 13 Premier League games without a goal. In a week that revealed talks of foreign ownership are on-going, the sooner the south Wales club consolidate their top-flight status the better.
- Poyet Under Pressure
Less assured of their Premier League status next season are Sunderland. Barely had the ink dried on many a writers’ copy proclaiming the arrival of Jermain Defoe as the most astute piece of January business following his second goal in as many games at Swansea that manager Gus Poyet was again at loggerheads with his supporters. Defoe may yet keep the Black Cats afloat this year, but his knack of scoring goals might not be enough to keep Poyet in his job.
“It’s always our fault,” bellowed the naysayers among the 4,200 travelling fans at Valley Parade last Sunday in reference to the Uruguayans habit of reeling out excuses, disgruntled at their status as a club in the lower reaches of the league seemingly in stasis, with an ailing relationship at its core in need of a remedy.
Poyet’s open letter this week was designed to be just that, but victory over a resurgent West Bromwich Albion at the Stadium of Light this Saturday would provide a far tastier tonic. It begins a pivotal run of fixtures for the Wearsiders, with Aston Villa and Hull City to face in the coming weeks, and while the recent spate of appointments elsewhere has left a shortage of credible alternatives, American Owner Elis Short has previous in gambling on a managerial change going into the final throes of a season, replacing Martin O’Neill with Paulo Di Canio in 2013. Having directly addressed the fans, Poyet needs that ‘very important victory’.
- Does Ramsey Stick Or Twist?
While Sunderland appeared paralyzed through fear in the defeat to Bradford – after becoming the first team not to win at home to QPR – it remains to be seen if a first away win will conversely release Rangers from the psychological shackles on the road. The 2-0 success over Sunderland was achieved without top goalscorer Charlie Austin, who is expected to have recovered from a foot injury in time for the trip to Hull this weekend.
The striker was not missed the last time the side travelled to the North-East. Indeed, while Austin contributed throughout the miserable run of 11 away defeats previously, the one other away fixture in which the west Londoners were without their natural spearhead – at Everton in December – there were signs of another way of winning.
Bobby Zamora was used from the substitutes bench that night and, having been extremely unlucky to find themselves 3-0 down, Rangers were by far the better side in the second-half. Zamora reduced the arrears, and followed up that goal with his stunning volley last week. Appointed on a full-time basis until the end of the season, manager Chris Ramsey’s first task will be decide whether to stick with Zamora as the lone striker or revert back to a system involving Austin that has hitherto proved fruitless away from Loftus Road.
- Sherwood To Lay First Brick In Villa Fortress
Following a routine victory on Easter Saturday last April, Tim Sherwood credited himself with the rise of Harry Kane after the striker’s third goal in as many games for Tottenham. “Harry’s fortunate that I give him an opportunity,” the new Aston Villa boss enthused at the time, in reference to the many managers who ‘opt to play big-money signings over young kids’.
With each passing stellar performance from the young England striker since, Sherwood’s stock has risen with the flawed credibility of that assertion, which coincidentally fell a day after Lucy Beale was murdered in Eastenders. The Sherwood household would agree that the denouement of that particular drawn-out search was a cop-out, but Villa fans will hope the appointment of English football’s highly sought-after coach doesn’t prove such a red herring.
God only knows where Christian Benteke was the last time Kathy Beale was on the aforementioned BBC soap, but one suspects he was in better form than he is today. The Belgian was among the most coveted strikers in Europe when he signed a new long-term deal at Villa Park in the summer of 2013. Having mustered only 14 goals since, Sherwood will need to call upon those inimitable man-management skills of his once more.
Also on his agenda is bringing ‘Fortress Villa Park’ back from the dead. Just 17 home wins in 69 Premier League games dating back to the end of the 2010-11 campaign speaks volumes of the ease with which sides have left the Midlands victorious in recent years. One such welcome recipient was this weekend’s visitors Stoke City, who won 4-1 on their last visit down the M6 last March.
- Palace Concern At Home Form
Another side struggling at home this season are Crystal Palace. The recent troubling incidents involving objects thrown from the fanatical section of the Homesdale Road end is not the only blot on manager Alan Pardew’s second coming at Crystal Palace. While Pardew admits it is not in his power to prevent missiles from entering the pitch, it is within his remit to stop his side from conceding goals that spark such ugly scenes. Palace have won all four matches on the road since the former Newcastle United manager took over, but he is yet to fully rectify the slump in home form since the departure of Tony Pulis last summer.
No side has lost more on home soil than Palace’s six so far this term, and with Arsenal the visitors on Saturday, Pardew will be after improved performances in front of his own fans to ensure his side aren’t sucked back into a relegation mire. The Gunners are in Champions League action in midweek, but given that just five points separate United in third and Liverpool in seventh, Arsene Wenger can ill-afford his side to turn their attentions away from domestic matters just yet.
- Balotelli’s Body Language
This Sunday’s game between Southampton and Liverpool had been billed as the return of Saints old boys to St Mary’s, and while there is bound to be interest in the respective receptions of Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren and Rickie Lambert, the spotlight will once again be stolen by Liverpool’s enfant terrible Mario Balotelli. For in an act of personal triumph, scoring the winner in Thursday night’s Europa League tie with Besiktas, the mercurial Italian striker still found controversy.
Steven Gerrard, in his punditry role for ITV, called his decision to take penalty-kick duties off Jordan Henderson ‘disrespectful’, sending social media into meltdown. It has been perceived in some quarters as a slip of the tongue akin to throwing one’s teammate under a bus, and it will be interesting to see how Balotelli, who took to Instagram to call for the incident to be forgotten, now responds to being singled out by his skipper on the pitch – if given the nod. In the unlikely scenario that both he and Lambert are on the pitch at the same time that a penalty were awarded for the visitors, it’ll be one hell of a fight for the ball.
- The Shackles Are Off At Everton
Roberto Martinez might now wish for an artificial pitch every week. The Everton boss said his side’s 4-1 demolition of Swiss side Young Boys on Thursday brought back memories of last season, and following a December and January in which he described his players as ‘pedestrian’ in their performances, a period of going back to being hard to beat has ensued, at the expense of the free-flowing football that is in his DNA.
It worked a treat in the slender win at Selhurst Park, whilst it was very nearly successful at home to Liverpool and away to Chelsea – but the Spaniard’s attacking line-up in Bern said everything about the manner in which he wanted his side to approach that particular game. Martinez wanted his players to express themselves in order to score an all-important away goal. They managed four. Lukaku could have had six.
Even in such a pleasing evening’s work we saw the pitfalls of the manager’s preference for a high-risk philosophy, in the self-inflicted dismissal of John Stones, but after the bleakest of winters, such a big win will have sent confidence levels through the roof at Finch Farm. Leicester City are the visitors to Goodison Park on Sunday, and while the Foxes have given a good account of themselves in almost all their defeats this season, don’t expect any such European hangover to occur this time.
- Spursy Sundays Are Back
Since the end of the Europa League group stages last November, Tottenham have found their groove under new boss Mauricio Pochetinno. Winning 10 and losing only three league games since, Spurs have belatedly joined the chasing pack in search for a top four finish. It is a far cry from the early weeks of the season, when home defeats to Liverpool, West Brom, Newcastle and Stoke heavily impeded any hopes of a smooth transition under new management, labelling the side ‘Spursy’ for losing matches only they could with their abundance of talent.
This week saw Tottenham resume their involvement in Europe’s secondary competition at home to Fiorentina and, with Kane notably absent from the starting line-up, the north Londoners were far from their fluent best in the 1-1 draw.
Boosted by the High Court’s ruling that the club can now go ahead with their plans for a new stadium, there’s no love lost between themselves and this Sunday’s visitors West Ham, who know a thing or two about disputed land.
Pochetinno has stuck by his principles of turning his squad into the fittest in the league through a game built on high intensity honed in his double training sessions, but with the visit to Florence next Thursday preceding the Capital One Cup final against Chelsea, the side he selects to take care of the Hammers, under a wounded Sam Allardyce, can expect a stern test.