EPL fixtures at a glance: Title race heating up

THINGS are tight at the top as the top three are separated by just five points, with every single fixture hereon taking on the significance of cup finals. Every game becomes a must-win for each of the teams with title pretensions and similarly, for those competing for a European place.

After a full round of league fixtures in midweek, FocusM  looks at the key talking points from the upcoming weekend’s action.

Everton v Tottenham Hotspurs (Sat, 8.30pm)

Everton are winless in five league games and have slipped back into the relegation zone after a brief spell that saw them claw their way out despite a ten-point deduction for financial irregularities. A small squad has meant that fatigue, injuries and suspensions are taking their toll on the Toffees as they host a Spurs side that has rediscovered their spark.

The visitors sit in fourth and have title pretensions of their own after briefly leading the table a few months ago. In a game, neither side can afford to lose for very different reasons.

Brighton & Hove Albion v Crystal Palace (Sat, 10pm)

Dubbed the M23 derby, this fixture is traditionally hugely important to both sets of supporters, with many a blood-and-thunder game peppering its history. Both teams could do with a victory, as form has deserted them. The Seagulls have won only one of their last eight and suffered a shock defeat to relegation candidates Luton in midweek. They also seemed to have lost their attacking spark with just six goals in that time frame.

The Eagles are also under immense pressure as they sit just six points off the drop zone, knowing full well that a couple more poor results could see a distinctly uncomfortable end to the season. A draw looks very likely, which would be unhelpful to neither team.

Burnley v Fulham (Sat, 10pm)

Goals seem to have dried up completely for Fulham. Their midweek scoreless draw against Everton was the tenth time that the Cottagers have failed to find the net. No other team has scored fewer aside from bottom-placed Sheffield United. The visitor’s failure to replace Aleksandar Mitrovic in the summer has cost them dearly as the team clearly lacks a genuine no 9 who can put the finishing touch on their often impressive build-up play.

Burnley are second-bottom and six points adrift of safety. Time is running out for Vincent Kompany to engineer a great escape, with home wins against the likes of the Cottagers imperative.

Newcastle United v Luton Town (Sat, 10pm)

After a brief wobble when the fixture pile-up and a lengthy injury list contributed to Newcastle slipping down the table, the Magpies seem to have rediscovered their mojo. Confidence is slowly returning to the players, best exemplified by skipper Kieran Tripper who has shrugged off recent poor performances to once again lead from the back.

Perhaps talk of an impending move to Bayern Munich turned his head but he seems to have regained what is approaching his best form as the home side continue their hunt for a European place in earnest. The Hatters buoyed by a handsome victory against Brighton in midweek may find St James Park a bridge too far.

Sheffield United v Aston Villa (Sun, 1.30am)

Sheffield United continue to prop up the division and despite a late fightback against Crystal Palace in midweek, they could not avoid yet another costly defeat. Their bid to escape relegation looks doomed, as the squad looks out of place in the top flight. Bereft of the necessary quality, Chris Wilder’s side may find it tough to contain a free-wheeling Villa team that sits just three points off the top four.

However, Villa’s high defensive line has been exposed before, and it could just provide the Blades with an opportunity to grab something from the match.

Bournemouth v Nottingham Forest (Sun, 10pm)

Nottingham Forest sit perilously close to the drop zone and a defeat to the upwardly mobile Cherries may see them firmly sucked into a relegation dogfight if they are not already in one. Nuno Espirito Santos’s main task is to instill belief in a team that is making far too many costly errors as exemplified by the one that led to the defeat to Arsenal in midweek.

Bournemouth sit comfortably in 12th and will want to solidify their position allowing Adoni Iraola to plan for a more upward trajectory in the top flight next season.

Chelsea v Wolverhampton Wanderers (Sun, 10pm)

Chelsea were outplayed, outfought and outthought in a midweek humbling at Anfield. The large collective of expensive misfits struggled against a rampant Liverpool, none more so than Moises Caicedo, who might just be regretting rejecting Liverpool’s overtures in the summer in favour of a move to Stamford Bridge. He is part of a £220 mil midfield lineup alongside World Cup winner Enzo Fernandez who has failed to live up to expectations.

This will need to change if Chelsea wants to rise above the lowly 10th place they currently occupy in the table.

Manchester United v West Ham United (Sun, 10pm)

David Moyes returns to Old Trafford and little has changed since his dismissal a decade ago. The current manager is under intense pressure, and an expensively assembled squad is misfiring, leaving the home side seventh in the table, eight points off a Champions League spot.

It would be safe to assume that that would be the bare minimum required if Erik ten Hag is to keep his job at the end of the season. Marcus Rashford’s hot and cold form encapsulates the home side’s travails, as supporters do not know which version of Manchester United will show up.

Arsenal v Liverpool (Mon, 12.30am)

The plum tie of the weekend which Manchester City will be closely watching as the result will greatly determine which team will be their closest challenger for the title. Fresh from mauling of Chelsea in midweek and still riding on a wave of emotion of Jurgen Klopp’s impending departure, Liverpool will feel they have the tools to take all three points at the Emirates.

However, they will be wary of the home side’s attacking prowess, where only extreme profligacy in the third round of the FA Cup allowed Klopp’s men to emerge victorious. A possible injury doubt over striker Darwin Nunez alongside the still-crocked Mo Salah means the visitors will not have their full armour to face the Gunners.

Brentford v Manchester City (Tues, 4am)

Pep Guardiola’s men usually time their title-winning runs to begin at this point in the season. With Eerling Haaland and Kevin de Bruyne returning from injury, the signs look ominous for their title rivals. Manchester City have already negotiated two difficult opponents without hitting top gear in the shape of Newcastle and Spurs in the preceding week.

The away side, though, will be wary that the Bees did the double over them last season and with Ivan Toney back from a lengthy ban, they could be in for a tough examination. Backed by a vociferous crowd at the Community Stadium, Brentford are a match for any team but a City side beginning to hit top form may have too much for them. – Feb 3, 2024


All photos credited to The Guardian

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