THE apex of the English Premier League (EPL) table is beginning to take on a familiar look as reigning champions Manchester City seek to go top with their usual late surge, leaving all rivals in their wake.
Things are equally tight at the bottom, with just eight points separating 13th-placed Fulham from Everton, who occupy 18th, meaning the relegation dog fight involves more than just the bottom four or five teams.
FocusM looks at the talking points from the weekend’s fixtures.
Manchester City v Everton (Sat, 8.30pm)
Pep Guardiola’s men have won 11 and drawn one in their last dozen outings as they start to hit form. The return of Kevin de Bruyne and Eerling Haaland means the reigning champions are primed for their usual post-Christmas run, which sees them blow rivals away.
Bookmakers have not only installed City as favourites to retain the title but also to do a second successive treble including the Champions League and FA Cup as well. Relegation-threatened Everton are staring at a possible thumping at the Etihad stadium.
Fulham v Bournemouth (Sat, 11pm)
After a brief spell when Fulham scored 10 goals in two league outings, the home side seems to have lost their way again. The Cottagers have been winless since last year and have suffered exits from both domestic cups.
Bournemouth sit one point above the hosts in 12th and will be looking to compound Fulham’s misery. Dominic Solanke’s is in a rich vein of form and is making a belated push for a place in England’s Euro 2024 squad.
Liverpool v Burnley (Sat, 11pm)
Liverpool were quite simply awful in their 3-1 defeat to Arsenal last weekend. They were simply outplayed for large parts of the game, and that result has swung the title race in favour of Manchester City. Burnley will be wary of a backlash but will seek to exploit Liverpool’s high defensive line, in particular the space left behind a marauding Trent Alexander-Arnold.
Another defeat or even a draw will severely dent, if not completely quash, Liverpool’s title ambitions, given the fine margins at the top end of the table.
Luton Town v Sheffield United (Saturday, 11pm)
The proverbial relegation six-pointer. With each passing week, hopes of a great escape grow dimmer for the away side, who have looked completely out of their depth among the elite.
However, having seen the host climb out of the bottom three with a spate of hard-fought results, the Blades will believe that a chance, however slim, remains for them to retain their Premiership status. They will need to start by beating the Hatters though, as defeat will surely reduce those chances to practically nil.
Tottenham Hotspurs v Brighton & Hove Albion (Sat, 10pm)
The home side welcomes back captain Son Heung-min from Asian Cup duty and hopes his partnership with Richarlison will continue where it left off. Brighton are having a mixed season as European commitments take their toll on a squad missing key departures in the summer in the shape of Moises Caiceido and Alexis McAllister.
There is also a feeling that Roberto De Zerbi’s side has been rumbled with opponents, having sussed out how to deal with their high-pressing tactics.
Wolverhampton Wanderers v Brentford (Sat, 11pm)
Spurs are not the only ones to benefit from South Korea’s exit from the Asian Cup. Wolves welcome back striker Hwang Hee-chan who has contributed 10 goals thus far this campaign, and will be hoping he can help sink a floundering Brentford.
After a couple of seasons of punching above their weight, the Bees are struggling to replicate the form of seasons past. The return of forward Ivan Toney after a lengthy ban for contravening betting rules should aid their cause for a place in the top half of the table.
Nottingham Forest v Newcastle (Sun, 1.30am)
Both sides had lofty ambitions when the season began. The home side was to establish themselves as Premiership regulars while the away side was looking forward to competing in the Champions League annually. Unconvincing performances aligned with injuries have seen both sides flounder and are some way off their initial targets.
Forest are just three points off the drop zone, while the Magpies are 13 points shy of Villa who sit in fourth. Neither side can really afford a draw, nevermind a defeat.
West Ham United v Arsenal (Sun, 10pm)
Fresh from beating table-toppers Liverpool, the Gunners will believe they have momentum in the title race. Put in a similar performance and Arsenal should prove too much for the Hammers who lost 3-0 at Old Trafford last weekend.
That defeat to Manchester United again highlighted the need for David Moyes to add a few more players to the squad, not least upfront. But a quiet January transfer window saw little activity, and the Hammers will probably struggle against a resurgent Arsenal.
Aston Villa v Manchester United (Sun, 12.30am)
The home side could have taken top spot a couple of weeks ago, but a couple of poor results have seen supporters realign their expectations. A place in the top four would represent a significant improvement for Unai Emery’s men and they will believe they can put an inconsistent Manchester United side to the sword.
Having squandered a two-goal lead in the game at Old Trafford, the Villans will want to take maximum points against a rival with top-four pretensions of their own.
Crystal Palace v Chelsea (Tues, 4am)
Both managers are feeling the heat as rumours swirl over their respective futures. The Eagle sit in 14th and are just five points off the drop zone. Hampered by a lengthy injury list for much of the season, Roy Hodgson has had to put out patched-up sides that naturally struggled without many first-teamers.
Chelsea are in 11th and their midtable position belies the heavy investment in their playing squad. Mauricio Pochettino is under immense pressure to hammer this bloated squad into shape, and their 3-1 win away at Villa in the FA Cup underlines that progress is being made. – Feb 10, 2024
Main photo credit: The Guardian