1) Van Dijk faces the brickbats
Welcome back Virgil van Dijk ... no Southampton supporter will be saying when the centre-back strides onto the St Mary’s pitch on Sunday. The reception will be hostile and something the Dutchman will have to cope with as he continues to adjust to life as a Liverpool player. It’s been a rocky process for Van Dijk – following his Hollywood-esque debut against Everton there have been appearances in two defeats and a draw, with six goals conceded in the process. Van Dijk insists he can handle the pressure that comes with being the world’s most expensive defender and, despite the turmoil, he has generally impressed for Jürgen Klopp’s side. Now comes arguably Van Dijk’s most difficult test. Prosper amid the jeers and the 26-year-old may feel he has truly arrived at Anfield. SN
2) Gunners relishing a north London derby
Hang around long enough and you will be vindicated. That thought, plus an extravagant salary, has probably kept Arsène Wenger going in recent years even when everyone else called him deluded. So how giddy the Frenchman must feel in advance of Saturday’s north London derby, to which extra oomph has been added by the unravelling of Chelsea. The top four spot that once looked secure in the hands of Roman Abramovich’s club is up for grabs again and Arsenal, along with Spurs, are suddenly back in contention, with Wenger boasting a pair of snazzy new forwards. His team’s defensive and midfield frailties have not been addressed but there was no sign of them when Wenger’s men dominated and won 2-0 at the Emirates in November. Spurs looked strangely off-colour that day but beat Borussia Dortmund three days later. Mauricio Pochettino’s side face another strenuous European assignment on Tuesday – at Juventus – so it is up to Arsenal to set a level of intensity that tests them to the utmost on Saturday. Toby Alderweireld missed November’s match but his successful return during Wednesday’s FA Cup win over Newport County gives Pochettino an interesting selection question: should Spurs’ best defender be preserved for Juventus or, after four months out with hamstring trouble, is he really ready to try keeping pace with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang? PD
3) Pardew and Conte under pressure
The focus ahead of kick-off will be on Chelsea and, specifically, Antonio Conte, but attention should also paid to the man in the opposition dugout. Alan Pardew’s managerial stints tend to follow a pattern: early lift followed by an alarming drop-off, and the hope of West Bromwich Albion’s hierarchy would have been that he delivered on the former while avoiding the latter. Yet two months on, Pardew appears to be operating in reverse. West Brom have won just once in the league under his charge, with last week’s 3-2 defeat to Southampton leaving them rooted to bottom place. It looks bleak for the Baggies and, as such, they need a quick turnaround. With Chelsea in disarray, this game may be an unexpected opportunity for West Brom to kick-start that process. SN
4) Laporte facing Vardy test
Two years ago this week Leicester swirled to the victory that announced them as serious title challengers, dazzling as they won 3-1 at the Etihad. Riyad Mahrez was magnificent that day, as he was when Leicester walloped Manchester City 4-2 at the King Power last season in what was one of Pep Guardiola’s most embarrassing experiences in England. Conveniently enough for City and Guardiola, Mahrez is no state to play against them this weekend. But Leicester sure have the motivation to cause them problems. And even without Mahrez they have dangerous counterattacking power, and it will be interesting to see how new signing Aymeric Laporte copes with Jamie Vardy. It is not impossible, then, that Manchester City will drop points in two matches in a row for the first time this season. PD
5) A potentially season-defining match for Huddersfield?
Huddersfield are in all sorts of relegation bother. They are without a win in their past eight league matches and have lost five on the spin. With 12 matches left to save themselves and so many teams concertinaed in the lower half of the table, survival remains well within their remit. However, with three of their final four games coming against Manchester United, Tottenham and Chelsea, one can’t help but feel theirs is a crisis that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. They entertain Bournemouth this weekend, a resurgent side who are unbeaten in seven and have won four of their past five, smiting Arsenal and Chelsea along the way. Against Birmingham City in the FA Cup in midweek, David Wagner’s side did at least get to experience what it’s like to win again, even if their fourth-round replay – and the extra time that came with it – was conceivably a distraction they could have done without as they focus on maintaining their Premier League survival. Wagner argued otherwise, saying the win will help Huddersfield “build momentum for the Premier League”. Their third round win against Bolton did nothing of the sort, preceding as it did four consecutive league defeats. A similar run now will almost certainly consign them to the drop, but a win against in-form Bournemouth could prove season-defining. BG
6) A return for Pogba
Much was made of the long-running feud between Rafael Benítez and José Mourinho before they renewed hostilities for the first time in a decade last November, in a match Manchester United came from behind to win comfortably after struggling in the opening 30 minutes. The match passed off without further needle between the pair and Mourinho was magnanimous enough to praise his opposite number’s bravery in fielding two strikers at Old Trafford. Ultimately the tactic didn’t pay off but it’s worth remembering Newcastle missed a terrific opportunity to give themselves a two-goal first half cushion. It’s also worth remembering that Paul Pogba was the standout player for Manchester United in that game, following his return from a two-month lay-off with injury. His most recent lay-off came last weekend against Huddersfield, punishment for a woeful performance at Wembley against Tottenham. Expect him to be handed a shot at redemption at St James’s Park. BG
7) Will the Carvalhal revival continue?
When does new manager bounce end and an actual turnaround begin? It’s a question rarely asked but feels relevant in the context of Swansea City’s recent form. A team sliding towards relegation has been revitalised since Carlos Carvalhal succeeded Paul Clement as manager, winning five of their subsequent 10 matches. Swansea are on the rise but now comes a tricky encounter. Burnley earned a credible draw with Manchester City last week and will make life uncomfortable for their hosts at the Liberty Stadium – it will be a test of Swansea’s character as well as talent and provide a strong indication of just how transformed they have been by a change in the dugout. SN
8) Evra arrives in the east end
Patrice Evra described himself as “thankful” after completing his move to West Ham, and the sentiment is understandable given the Frenchman has been out of work since Marseille terminated his contract in November. Ultimately, however, it may be West Ham who are thankful to the left-back for joining them given the crisis that has enveloped the London Stadium in recent weeks. Evra cannot solve that on his own but he could prove to be a galvanising presence. As such, it may be a good idea for David Moyes’s to include the 36-year-old in the squad to face Watford – a new face for the supporters to be excited by and, for the players, a winner who comes with a larger-than-life personality to lift spirits in the dressing room. SN
9) A return to the Everton lineup for Sigurdsson and Rooney?
Despite making one notable change in formation and several others in personnel for Everton’s match against Arsenal last weekend, Sam Allardyce was predictably quick to absolve himself of all blame when his side was thrashed at the Emirates. Yes, there is only so much a manager can do and Everton’s performance was truly dismal, but the manner in which Allardyce threw his players under the bus so soon after Arsenal’s had flattened them with a steamroller is likely to have had several of the more senior among them bristling with resentment. Wayne Rooney and Gylfi Sigurdsson were conspicuous, controversial absentees from the lineup against Arsenal, not least because of Everton’s dismal record – P6 W0 D3 L3 – when both players don’t start, compared to their excellent one – P6 W4 D1 L1 – when both do (spotter’s badge: @JakeEntwhistle). Fitness permitting, only the most arrogant fool would leave both men out again after last weekend’s debacle; Everton’s teamsheet to face Crystal Palace will make for interesting reading. BG
10) Stoke and Brighton face a cagey affair
Paul Lambert has stepped up the intensity of Stoke’s workload since taking the reins torn from Mark Hughes’s light grasp, summoning his players to the club’s Clayton Wood training ground six times a week, including on days after matches for recovery sessions (for those who played), fitness top-ups (for those who didn’t), injury assessments and post-game debriefs and analysis. Following his team’s defeat at the hands of Bournemouth last weekend, Lambert seemed surprised they had not won, let alone claimed a point, and with a fourth consecutive six-pointerlooming, can ill afford back-to-back defeats. Brighton remain above the drop-zone, as they have done since August, although a column in the local paper, the Argus, suggests a vocal minority of their supporters are unhappy with the caution with which they approached their recent draw against Southampton after taking the lead. Chris Hughton will be unperturbed by such brickbats and will continue to do things the way that have worked for him thus far. The man who began his working life as an apprentice lift engineer in south London has no intention of going down. Away to Stoke in a match of such huge importance, a fairly cagey affair could be on the cards. BG