Premier League: 10 things to look out for this weekend

Michael Butler, Barry Glendenning and Gregg Bakowski on 14 December 2018

1) Liverpool must regain focus for Manchester United

It is a marker of how far Manchester United have fallen to see that when Gary Neville set about choosing his combined XI for Liverpool and Manchester United on Monday Night Football, he included just three outfield United players. The only player he picked with conviction was Anthony Martial at left wing, admitting Eric Bailly would not be in if Joe Gomez was fit and laughing that his selection of Paul Pogba alongside Naby Keïta and Gini Wijnaldum was “just an opportunity to get a United player in”. Nobody would argue that Liverpool are the better side, and have been for a number of years, yet the past eight league meetings read W0, D3, L5 for the Merseyside club. Liverpool’s lack of ruthlessness against Napoli so nearly came back to bite them in the Champions League; they can ill afford the same profligacy against a José Mourinho side that is unlikely to be anything other than defensively minded. MB

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2) Key suspensions add to Palace problems

Crystal Palace’s inability to win Premier League matches without Wilfried Zaha has been well documented and they will try to do so at the 13th time of asking since the start of last season after their winger earned a suspension for their meeting with Leicester City at Selhurst Park. James Tomkins, who himself picked up a needless booking for dissent at the end of Palace’s defeat at Brighton, will also sit this one out for disciplinary reasons. While his absence will not generate the same headlines, his importance to Palace should not be overstated considering the partnership he has forged with Mamadou Sakho in defence. “He is comfortable with his teammates,” said Roy Hodgson, who is a longtime admirer of the 29-year-old. Struggling to get points on the board due in no small part to their toothlessness up front, Palace must now try to end a run of two defeats with a similarly conspicuous absence at the back. BG

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3) The start of a crucial run for Fulham

Claudio Ranieri has had a promising start at Fulham. Survival or relegation will not be judged on away defeats to Manchester United or Chelsea, while four points at home against Southampton and Leicester represents a good return for the bottom club. What is more, the next four games against West Ham, Newcastle, Wolves and Huddersfield are winnable. One of Ranieri’s most important decisions since coming in was to restore Ryan Sessegnon to the left wing, with the 18-year-old showing the form that had Manchester United and Tottenham scouts jostling for elbow room in the stands in the Championship last season. Ridiculously, the Sessegnon made his 100th Fulham appearance last time out and will be relishing the chance of facing one of the league’s slowest right-backs, Pablo Zabaleta, on Saturday evening. MB

4) Time to focus on Jesus

Yes, Manchester City beat Hoffenheim. Yep, Leroy Sané scored a free-kick for the ages, but the truth is that was a match of squandered opportunities. City should have scored six, and there were no worse misses than the one by Gabriel Jesus, who planted a free header against the post from four yards out, with City 1-0 down. Other than that, and being fouled quite a lot, the 21-year-old did little else, which is staggering considering he was the lone striker in a team that had 23 shots on goal. With Sergio Agüero injured, this should be Jesus’s time to make his mark but he hasn’t scored in the league since August and it was a damning assessment of his form that Pep Guardiola played without a traditional striker at Chelsea last weekend. That didn’t work, so Jesus’s immediate fate this Saturday at home to Everton depends on whether Agüero returns – if he doesn’t, Jesus is under pressure to perform. If Agüero is fit, it could be a long winter on the bench for the Brazilian. MB

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Gabriel Jesus after the Hoffenheim game.
Gabriel Jesus after the Hoffenheim game. Photograph: Victoria Haydn/Man City via Getty Images

5) Huddersfield dealing with depleted lineup

After their surprise win at Wolves, it’s been business as usual for Huddersfield, who have slipped to three consecutive defeats against Brighton, Bournemouth and Arsenal. Next up are Newcastle, who travel to the John Smith’s Stadium licking their wounds after last weekend’s late smash and grab by the men from Molineux. It’s been the same old, same old for David Wagner, who seems to spend an inordinate amount of his post-match media duties praising a team who can rarely be faulted for effort but just don’t seem good enough to harvest the points required to stay in the top flight. The news that midfield schemer and standout player, Aaron Mooy, will be sidelined until February with a knee injury has dealt a hammer-blow to their chances of survival, while captain Tommy Smith is also facing a spell on the sidelines with a hamstring injury. “The news on both Aaron and Tommy is not something we wanted, but injuries are part of football,” said Wagner. “For now, this creates opportunities for others.” Specifically, one suspects, Huddersfield’s opponents, starting with Newcastle on Saturday. BG

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6) Gross: points or blank?

Of all the January transfer rumours flying about at the moment, it’s hard to know which is the stranger: Brighton’s Pascal Gross to Liverpool or Brighton’s Pascal Gross to Southampton? Saints’ new manager, Ralph Hasenhüttl, is apparently keen on reuniting with a player he coached at Ingolstadt. Of course he is, Gross registered the same number assists last season as Mesut Özil – only Riyad Mahrez provided more outside the top six. Where he would fit in Liverpool’s central midfield is a different question, but perhaps Jürgen Klopp would see value of adding an expert passer to his midfield of runners, even if he does cost at least five times the £3m Brighton paid for him in 2017. Gross has gone off the boil this season for Brighton – injury-prone, no assists, one solitary goal (a penalty) – but he remains a fine player and a timely performance this weekend against Chelsea’s Jorginho-Kanté axis could remind Klopp and co of his talents. MB

Pascal Gross in action for Brighton.
Pascal Gross in action for Brighton. Photograph: Phil Duncan/ProSports/Rex/Shutterstock

7) Quina’s chance to shine again for Watford

Few midfields can match the physicality of Watford’s. Just ask Séamus Coleman, Everton’s full-back, who could only watch as Abdoulaye Doucouré soared over him to head Watford into a 2-1 lead on Monday night. With Étienne Capoue suspended, it was a surprise to see Javi Gracia drop Nathaniel Chalobah for 5ft 8in Domingos Quina, who made his full Premier League at Goodison Park and became the second youngest player to ever start for Watford. The teenager was the best player on the park, strong in the tackle, not afraid to dribble his way out of trouble and incisive with his passing. One good performance does not a wonderkid make, but on Monday’s evidence it seems curious West Ham let the Portuguese Under-19 Euros champion go for £1m in the summer. With Capoue still suspended for the visit of Cardiff, Quina should get another chance to show West Ham what they are missing. MB

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8) Dropping Cherries

Last season, Burnley failed to muster a win in 11 league matches either side of Christmas but only dropped one place to seventh. It was a testament to both their fine start and the lack of quality of the sides below them. This time around, Bournemouth are doing a passable imitation – despite losing five of their past six games, Eddie Howe’s side have fallen two places to eighth. While they look in little or no danger of relegation, it is a slump that needs to be arrested if they are to challenge for a European place and the poor account of themselves they gave against Liverpool last weekend suggests there is much to do. They look sure to be tested against Wolves at Molineux and with Lewis Cook out for the rest of the season, Dan Gosling also sidelined and Harry Arter on loan at Cardiff without a recall clause, a long-term fix is required in midfield. Like many of his teammates, Andrew Surman failed to convince in his sixth league start of the season against Liverpool and while it might be harsh to drop him, it would not constitute a huge surprise to see Nathan Aké moved forward to see how he might perform in the role. BG

9) Supercharged Saints to re-energise St Mary’s?

Southampton haven’t won at home since April. It’s a sorry record and one that has, understandably, led to many fans losing their enthusiasm. That’s something Ralph Hasenhüttl, wants to put right. “I force my players to run a lot,” he said, before the 1-0 defeat at Cardiff, for which he had only a couple of days to prepare. He cancelled his squad’s day off on Monday to begin an intensive six-day training regime before his first home game against Arsenal. The Austrian’s high-pressing style was effective with Leipzig in Germany and helped give his side an identity. Fans won’t be expecting a victory against a side unbeaten in 22 games, but a return to the high-energy football that made Saints so impressive under Mauricio Pochettino might help the team reconnect with supporters, whose backing will be vital in the relegation battle that lies ahead. GB

Ralph Hasenhüttl during a Southampton training session this week.
Ralph Hasenhüttl during a Southampton training session this week. Photograph: Matt Watson/Southampton FC via Getty Images

10) Will Spurs be fresh enough to see off Burnley?

Left clinging on by their fingernails against Brighton as they dug in for victory and their fourth clean sheet of the campaign on a filthy day at Turf Moor last weekend, Burnley can expect a similar onslaught when they travel to Wembley to face Tottenham. While Burnley’s players were buoyed by that much-needed win, their hosts wouldn’t be human if they weren’t physically and mentally drained after three games in six days, culminating in that nail-biter at Camp Nou. On a subconscious level, they could be forgiven for taking their foot off the gas against a team most will expect them to swat aside with a minimum of fuss. Despite Burnley’s current struggles, they took points off each of the top five last season and should be underestimated at any high-profile opponents’ peril. BG

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Pos Team P GD Pts
1 Liverpool 16 28 42
2 Man City 16 36 41
3 Tottenham Hotspur 16 14 36
4 Chelsea 16 20 34
5 Arsenal 16 15 34
6 Man Utd 16 2 26
7 Everton 16 4 24
8 AFC Bournemouth 16 -1 23
9 Leicester 16 1 22
10 Wolverhampton 16 -2 22
11 West Ham 16 -2 21
12 Watford 16 -3 21
13 Brighton 16 -3 21
14 Cardiff 16 -15 14
15 Newcastle 16 -9 13
16 Crystal Palace 16 -10 12
17 Burnley 16 -17 12
18 Huddersfield 16 -17 10
19 Southampton 16 -17 9
20 Fulham 16 -24 9

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