Champions League, El Clasico, the top-four race and more! Ten things to look out for this week

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With the Champions League, El Clasico and the Championship play-off race on the agenda this week, here are the things to look out for on a big week of football…

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Pressure on Arsenal; How will Arteta manage his squad?

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Arsenal’s win over Leicester.

Arsenal got a huge week off to a winning start as goals from Thomas Partey and Alexandre Lacazette secured a 2-0 victory over Leicester at the Emirates Stadium on Super Sunday.

It was a victory that saw the Gunners regain fourth spot from Manchester United, starting a busy week, which includes a massive test against Liverpool, live on Sky Sports on Wednesday, and a trip to Villa Park to face Aston Villa on Saturday lunchtime, in perfect style.

Arsenal
Liverpool

Wednesday 16th March 7:30pm Kick off 8:15pm

Considering they haven’t had too many distractions so far this season, with no European football to call upon and an early exit from the FA Cup at the hands of Nottingham Forest in January, this does represent a busy week for Mikel Arteta’s men,

So, how does the Spaniard handle what is quite a thin Arsenal squad following a host of first-team exits in the January transfer window?

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Mikel Arteta admits Arsenal had to raise their performance from their win over Watford to be able to get a victory against a good Leicester side

With Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool in town on Wednesday, does the Arsenal manager go full-strength and try to the momentum going against a side challenging for the title? Or does he look after his players with some rotation as he also looks ahead to the trip to Villa?

It’s a conundrum that hasn’t really cropped up yet this season for Arteta and how he manages his squad this week will be interesting. Could the likes of Emile Smith Rowe and Nicolas Pepe come into contention if Arteta chooses to shuffle his pack?

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However, with the Liverpool test up next, it’s hard to make a case for any changes if the players recover well after the Leicester win. They are in good form and have the momentum in the race for the top-four, and it would be a huge surprise to see anything but a full-strength Arsenal line-up as they look to further strengthen their bid to qualify for next season’s Champions League with a statement performance against Liverpool.

We have to be honest, the Gunners have had an easy schedule so far this season. The pressure has largely been off and they have largely been left to go under the radar as they have produced a remarkable turnaround in their season to lead the race for a top-four finish.

However, they now play twice before Manchester United are next in Premier League action and they have a huge chance to open up a significant gap – potentially seven points – to fifth place.

Arsenal are already in an excellent position, and a loss to Liverpool won’t change much. However, another good week could go a long way to wrapping up a top-four finish.

All eyes are now firmly on Arteta and his side! How will they respond?
Oliver Yew

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Image: Watch Arsenal vs Liverpool live on Wednesday from 7.30pm on Sky Sports Premier League; kick-off 8.15pm Arsenal's big test?

Sky Sports’ Jamie Redknapp: “They have a massive game against Liverpool. It feels like a big from both the point of view of Liverpool and Arsenal in terms of the title and getting into the top-four.”
Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink on Sky Sports: “That match against Liverpool on Wednesday will show how far they have come against the big sides. At the beginning of the season there was a big gap. So, the next thing will be can they do it against the big teams.”

Which Spurs will turn up at Brighton?

Image: Antonio Conte

Win, loss, win, loss, win, loss, win, loss, loss, win, loss, win, loss, win, loss. Tottenham’s last 15 results have been predictably unpredictable – no wonder head coach Antonio Conte was at breaking point last month.

Now he is calling for calm following their Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired defeat at Manchester United on Saturday.

“They need time to improve,” he said. “You can see that improvement on the pitch. But it is a process, you need time and patience.”

It is a sensible approach given Tottenham are still very much in the top-four picture, holding two games in hand over United, West Ham and Wolves although will need to beat rivals Arsenal, who currently occupy fourth and have played a game less.

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Manchester United’s win over Tottenham.

Conte says he is enjoying being at the club and will know that they are capable of being a decent side on their day, it’s finding consistency that is his biggest challenge.

Tottenham showed their best and worst in the defeat at United – losing out in the big moments – having thumped struggling Everton 5-0 last time out. That came after defeat at Middlesbrough in the FA Cup having hammered Leeds 4-0.

Before that, they had lost at Burnley but only after winning 3-2 at Manchester City with a superb performance. The analysis of their up-and-down results could go on.

So, which Tottenham will turn up in Brighton on Wednesday evening against a team on a five-game losing streak? Who knows, they’re just as capable of scoring three or four as they are to conceding the same amount. But one thing is for certain, it is a must-win game.
David Richardson

Tottenham Hotspur
West Ham United

Sunday 20th March 4:00pm Kick off 4:30pm

Is this Everton’s biggest week in their history?

Image: Frank Lampard

Weeks don’t get much bigger for Everton Football Club.

A relegation six-pointer against Newcastle before a FA Cup quarter-final away at Crystal Palace. Just what does Frank Lampard prioritise?

After Sunday’s results, most level-headed Everton fans will say the league clash with Newcastle is far more important. After losing at home to Wolves, and Leeds and Watford picked up wins, the Toffees have the second-worst form in the league after four straight defeats. Thursday night’s clash at Goodison Park is the perfect chance to get their survival race back on track.

But what the Everton faithful would give for a trophy. It’s been 27 years since Everton last lifted silverware – when they beat Manchester United in the 1995 FA Cup final – and Sunday’s last-eight clash at Palace is a great opportunity to earn at least one Wembley day out for their supporters.

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Despite his side currently being sat in 17th place in the Premier Legue league table, Everton boss Frank Lampard says his team shouldn’t get too caught up in the end picture and should instead look at what is right in front of them

Lampard has a very good relationship with the FA Cup too, having won the tournament four times as a player – while he also managed Chelsea to the 2020 final, where they lost to Arsenal.

This is a real dilemma for Everton and Lampard. Relegation to the Championship, with all their off-field problems regarding their sponsors and Russian investor Alisher Usmanov, could spell disaster for the Toffees. If they suffer relegation to the second tier, there’s no guarantee of an immediate return.

But Everton desperately need a lift – and a continuation of their cup run can provide that.

Decisions, decisions…
Sam Blitz

Can Liverpool cope without Salah?

Liverpool look set to face Arsenal in front of the Sky cameras on Wednesday without top scorer Mohamed Salah after the forward suffered a foot injury in the 2-0 win at Brighton.

Arsenal
Liverpool

Wednesday 16th March 7:30pm Kick off 8:15pm

Speaking after the game, Jurgen Klopp told BT Sport: “He thinks it’s not serious but you can see when Mo Salah is sitting down then something is not 100 per cent right.

“He got blocked before the penalty, when he shot the ball he overstretched his foot slightly. He felt it then a little bit higher, but he’s not concerned. I’m not sure what that means exactly.”

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Liverpool’s win at Brighton.

How much will the Reds miss their talisman if he is sidelined? Well, Salah is in a league of his own for goal involvements this season with 30. To put that into context, his nearest rivals are Jarrod Bowen and Heung-min Son on 16.

However, while Salah’s returns soar, Liverpool’s dependency on the Egyptian has arguably waned following the £49m signing of Luis Diaz on the final day of the January transfer window.

Liverpool are now well stocked with attacking talent, with Diaz, Sadio Mane, Diogo Jota, Roberto Firmino, Takumi Minamino, Divock Origi and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain all vying for starting berths.

Salah has started 163 out of a possible 180 games in the Premier League since joining Liverpool in 2017 and the statistics arguably provide evidence for waning dependency, with Klopp’s side winning all threes games without their star man this term.

Oxlade-Chamberlain replaced Salah for two successive games while the winger was on duty with Egypt at the Africa Cup of Nations in January, as was Mane – but Liverpool have added Diaz to their ranks since and also have Mane at their disposal this time.

Image: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain started down the right flank for two successive games while Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane were on duty at the Africa Cup of Nations in January, before Luis Diaz joined the club

Any team would miss Salah, as he sets course for a record-breaking season to drive Liverpool’s title tilt with Manchester CIty to the wire – but the Reds’ growing pool of attacking talent to mitigate injuries and competition commitments has been a notable progressive step this term.
Adam Smith

Auba brings athleticism to Barca ahead of El Clasico

Twelve games unbeaten in La Liga and up to third in the table, yet Barcelona still go into El Clasico on Sunday as underdogs. They could well be beaten in the Bernabeu. But the clarity of purpose has returned. Xavi’s arrival – Barca’s revival – has arrested the sense of drift.

It is Xavi, perhaps more than any player of the past two decades, who symbolises the Barcelona way. His playmaking partner Andres Iniesta was adored, a hero for all of Spain. Lionel Messi was Lionel Messi, a global icon. But Xavi was the Barca man.

Image: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has scored goals in his last six games

A theory has emerged in Spain that teams from La Liga now struggle to cope with the speed and physicality of the game that is being played by clubs from the Premier League.

Xavi has always espoused the view that no player can move quicker than the ball but even he has come to accept that there was a need to help the team’s technical players. Barcelona were not going to be bullied.

Three players arrived in the winter transfer window. All came from the Premier League. Ferran Torres was signed from Manchester City, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang came in from Arsenal, and Adama Traore was brought in on loan from Wolves with an option to buy. This was the athleticism they wanted.

There can be no more conspicuous example of the desire for physicality than the acquisition of Traore, a player Jordi Cruyff is known to have pushed for. His impact has been swift with four assists in his first six appearances, already winning over some of the doubters.

With five goals in nine games, Aubameyang has been an even more obvious hit, scoring a hat-trick away to Valencia. His most recent goal came in the win over Osasuna on Sunday – a game that Barcelona won by four goals to nil with two of them scored by Torres.
Adam Bate

The Championship play-off rumble continues

While Fulham are in pole position for an immediate return to the Premier League, and Bournemouth are in charge of the second automatic-promotion spot, the battle for the play-offs remains wide open.

Huddersfield look a pretty good bet for at least taking one of the spots – while also maintaining the most realistic hopes of chasing the Cherries – but below them a veritable royal rumble is emerging for the remaining places.

There are five points between QPR in fourth and Millwall in 11th. Games in hand dotted around complicates things too, and the fact anyone can beat anyone should lead to a fascinating and unpredictable run-in.
Simeon Gholam

Prutton's Championship predictions

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Sheffield turning things around

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Highlights of the Sky Bet League One game between Sheffield Wednesday and Cambridge United

2021 was a year to forget for football in Sheffield. United dropped out of the Premier League after an extremely disappointing second season, while Wednesday were bundled into League One.

This season is looking a lot brighter for the Steel City. United may have been turned by Coventry at the weekend, but have still enjoyed a very positive second half of the season so far under Paul Heckingbottom, and occupy a play-off spot in the Championship in hope of returning to the top flight.

Wednesday, meanwhile, thumped Cambridge 6-0 with Saido Berahino grabbing a hat-trick. They sit just outside the play-off spots in League One, but their form since the turn of the year – much like their city rivals – means no one will want to face them and their extremely talented squad should they reach the end-of-season showdowns.
Simeon Gholam

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Highlights of the Sky Bet Championship game between Coventry and Sheffield Utd

WSL: Chelsea’s time to strike

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Highlights of the Women’s Super League match between Chelsea and Aston Villa

Sam Kerr’s 92nd-minute winner to sink Aston Villa was a wonderful moment in itself for Chelsea Women at Kingsmeadow on Sunday. By the middle of May, it may have a far bigger impact.

That result kept the Blues’ WSL title hopes in their own hands. That has been the case for several weeks, since leaders Arsenal dropped two points against Manchester United in early February, but the seismic effect of three points against the Villans could become a reality as soon as next week.

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That win kept Chelsea five points behind the Gunners, still with the two games in hand they have had over their title rivals for some time. Only now, they finally have the opportunity to cash in their chips.

With Arsenal distracted by a Champions League quarter-final with Wolfsburg – the same side whose 4-0 win over Chelsea in December knocked them out in the group stages – the Blues play twice before the Gunners return to WSL duty a week on Saturday.

There will still be five games left of the season so whatever happens in those two Chelsea games against Everton and Tottenham, it won’t be fatal for either side. However, leaving Arsenal to play catch-up would ramp up the pressure on Jonas Eidevall and his side enough – and that’s without having a North London derby to contend with in their next league game.

It increasingly feels like crunch time at the top of the WSL. What an ending we have in prospect.
Ron Walker

Chelsea performing amid off-field chaos is no surprise

Amid the crisis that has engulfed Chelsea since Roman Abramovich announced his intention to sell the club – and was then sanctioned by the UK government – the performances of Thomas Tuchel’s side have understandably flown a little under the radar.

It may be surprising to hear, then, that the Blues’ only defeat in their last 12 matches was on penalties to Liverpool in the Carabao Cup final, while they have recorded 10 victories in those games.

Furthermore, since Abramovich put Chelsea up for sale, they have won all four of their fixtures, scoring 11 times in the process, while they currently lie third in the Premier League, are in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup and have one foot in the last eight of the Champions League ahead of their second leg against Lille on Wednesday.

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Chelsea’s win over Newcastle.

Perhaps maintaining success on the pitch while facing turmoil off it is something Chelsea’s players are now used to. The timing of Abramovich’s recent statements is a prime example – surely not many owners would have seen the night before a cup final as the best time to stun English football by revealing they were attempting to hand over control of the club they have controlled for nearly two decades.

It was a case of déjà vu for the Blues four days later when Abramovich put Chelsea up for sale just hours before they were due to face Luton, while the government’s decision to sanction the Russian billionaire – and therefore place strict limits on Chelsea’s activity – came on the day of their trip to Norwich.

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Chelsea head coach Thomas Tuchel reflects on a challenging win against Newcastle and jokes that he’ll drive the team bus if he has to in order for Chelsea to play in the Champions League

But this is the same Chelsea that won the Champions League last season, just four months after sacking club legend Frank Lampard as their head coach. That success came nine years after they won the Champions League for the first time – achieved under an interim manager who was sacked just months later.

As if further evidence of the chaos that regularly engulfs Chelsea was needed, they are currently under their 15th permanent manager of Abramovich’s 19-year ownership, during which time they have also faced a transfer embargo and an aborted attempt to join the European Super League.

While nobody is asking for sympathy for Chelsea given the circumstances that have led to their current predicament, it would not be surprising if they found themselves celebrating further success at the end of another chaotic season in a few months’ time.
Joe Shread

Man Utd trophy drought nears five years

May 24, 2017. The last time Manchester United won a major trophy.

April 22, 2013. The last time Manchester United won the Premier League.

Under former manager Sir Alex Ferguson, United never went more than three seasons without winning the Premier League title. For those who grew up knowing nothing else but endless success under the Scot, it is therefore understandable to view the current run of eight years following his retirement as a catastrophe.

But for a club and institution the size of United, that’s exactly what it is. Since his departure, the Red Devils have lifted just three pieces of silverware. The FA Cup under Louis van Gaal in 2016, and the League Cup and Europa League under Jose Mourinho the following season.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was tasked with restoring United back to former glories, but a mammoth penalty shootout loss to Villarreal in last season’s Europa League final was the closest he came before eventually being sacked later that year.

Attention then turned to interim boss Ralf Rangnick, but a shock FA Cup defeat by Middlesbrough last month leaves the Champions League as United’s only chance of silverware in what has been – to put it mildly – an underwhelming campaign.

Atletico Madrid visit Old Trafford on Tuesday night in the second leg of the last 16 with the tie finely balanced following a 1-1 draw at the Wanda Metropolitano three weeks ago. Rangnick’s side may well progress to the quarter-finals, but failure to go all the way will make it over half a decade since United last won a major trophy – their longest drought in 40 years.

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Man Utd boss Ralf Rangnick said the performance against Tottenham was exactly the response he was expecting after a poor second half in the Manchester derby

Domestically, Liverpool waited 30 years for a top-flight title. It will already be 10 if United fall short next season and although it might be a stretch to suggest they are on the same path, history has a strange way of repeating itself.

On current evidence, United’s barren streak looks set to continue for a while yet. This season’s Champions League is their only hope. But in reality, it’s a distant dream.
Dan Sansom

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