Game to watch: Liverpool v Manchester United
It’s the biggest game of the season so far. Indeed, this Anfield clash is probably the biggest meeting of these two rivals in Premier League history.
Not in almost 30 years, since a goalless draw at Old Trafford in October 1991, have Liverpool and United met as the top flight’s first and second-placed clubs. Both managers would perhaps take a point apiece again now, but it’s not in Jurgen Klopp’s make-up to settle for a point, while Ole Gunnar Solskjaer must be struggling to resist the temptation of going six clear at the summit.
For the sake of the spectacle, we hope so. With Liverpool haemorrhaging centre-backs – Klopp has tried three different partnerships since Joel Matip was injured against West Brom last month – they could be a without a senior specialist once more at the heart of their defence, which Solskjaer must recognise as an opportunity.
In contrast, United’s incredible upturn in form has been built on a defensive improvement. Solskjaer seems to have found a partner to complement Harry Maguire in Eric Bailly, and while the Ivory Coast defender was hiding in plain sight all along, only now is he putting a run of appearances together.
United have kept four clean sheets in six games since Bailly returned to the side and the prospect of all-action Eric hunting down Liverpool’s front three has us giddy already. Bailly will either be brilliant, making goal-saving blocks and thundering into tackles, or calamitous. Possibly both, but almost certainly not either. We’re not sure whether the fact that Bailly is long overdue a brain fart is a good sign or otherwise for the visitors.
Solskjaer’s approach will decide the pattern of this game. In five games against big six opposition in all competitions this season, United have scored just one goal – a penalty in the 6-1 humping by Tottenham. Since then, the United boss has played for a point against Chelsea and Manchester City while flailing against a pre-revival Arsenal side.
But that was before United’s own revival. They now look confident and hungry – everything United should be. They arguably go to an empty Anfield as favourites – they are certainly the most in-form of the two sides – and for the sake of our Sunday afternoon’s entertainment, let’s hope Solskjaer embraces the tag.
Manager to watch – Sam Allardyce
Saturday lunchtime’s Black Country derby will be a first for Big Sam. Never before will the self-confessed Wolves supporter have wanted to see the hosts beaten at Molineux.
“Yes I am a Wolves fan,” he admitted in 2019, and his new side have yet to give him much to cheer. Other than the 1-1 draw at Liverpool, West Brom have been wretched since Allardyce took over from Slaven Bilic.
Albion have conceded 12 goals in three home games under Allardyce while their defence seemingly gets worse. An FA Cup exit at League One Blackpool won’t have darkened the manager’s mood quite as much as the previous two defeats which saw Leeds and Arsenal score four and five respectively without reply, but still.
Allardyce, of course, has spoken about making big changes in the January transfer window but so far only Robert Snodgrass has arrived. So the Baggies must make do and a fortnight after their last Premier League outing, we should see what effect Allardyce and his staff have had on the training ground, even if he’s already got his excuses in there.
Covid has given him ‘another big problem’ on a day-to-basis, with Allardyce claiming that he can’t get his squad together in any environment, while Brexit has already been blamed for a failure to recruit three players in time to board the three busses the Baggies will take to Wolverhampton.
Big Sam was also quick to pin the blame on his players for the recent defeats and his repeated insistence on making big changes this month will have done little for harmony in a divided – literally – squad. Another defeat amid further recruitment struggles after plenty of time to organise his back four will leave him with few excuses.
Team to watch – Chelsea
“We’ve had two pretty long weeks where we’ve had a chance to work on the bigger elements of our game. Now is our chance to show that.”
Frank Lampard is another who will struggle for excuses if his side fails to win their derby on Saturday. Chelsea face a Fulham side unbeaten in five and while the Cottagers have won none of those matches, they’ve still gathered more points than their near neighbours in the same time frame.
Presumably the biggest element of Chelsea’s training over the last fortnight will have been focused on how to get the best out of their forwards, in particular Timo Werner and Kai Havertz.
On Werner, Lampard said on Thursday that the Germany forward hasn’t had the benefit of time to get to know his teammates and his role in the side. Persistent shuffling of positions in the forward line won’t help with that and despite Lampard insisting that “everybody has to be patient with the idea that we will maximise Timo’s talent in this team,” the manager knows he doesn’t have that luxury.
The past fortnight was a rare opportunity for Lampard to straighten out his underperforming side. The trip to Craven Cottage will show how effective he has been.
Player to watch – Ben White
The Brighton defender returns to Leeds where he spent last season on loan to face the club that was desperate to take the defender on a permanent basis last summer.
Marcelo Bielsa has smothered his former charge ahead of their reunion, saying how much White is still “admired and loved” at Elland Road. But the 23-year-old has a job to do, especially with the Seagulls descending to one place above the drop zone, only two points from safety having played two more games than 18th-placed Fulham and a couple more than Burnley above them.
It’s been nine games since Brighton won in the Premier League, not that Graham Potter is overly concerned. “We’ve probably had one game, or a game and a half this season where we’ve not been ourselves,” he said after losing at Man City. “Other than that, our performance level has been good.”
The stats somewhat back up Potter’s positivity. If the Premier League was decided on expected goals and expected goals against, Brighton might be challenging for Europe. But it isn’t and they aren’t. They have scored 5.3 fewer non-penalty goals than expected and conceded 6.1 more non-penalty goals than expected which, defensively, is the worst underperformance in the league.
Potter has already changed his keeper after Mat Ryan became a hologram in gloves and while Robert Sanchez has provided a safer pair of hands, he was caught out of position for City’s winner on Wednesday. Brighton don’t give up many chances, while Leeds tend to waste many of those they create. If White can shackle Patrick Bamford, then the Seagulls might begin to arrest their worrying slump.
Football League game to watch – Barnsley v Swansea
Bookending Sky Sports’ Premier League offering on Saturday are two games from the Championship. Middlesbrough face Birmingham in the lunchtime kick-off, while Barnsley host Swansea after Fulham v Chelsea.
Both Barnsley and Swansea are having fine seasons, with the hosts exceeding expectations in ninth place. Depending on results earlier in the day, they could replace Boro on the periphery of the play-offs in seventh.
Swansea are Norwich’s closest chasers but defeat at Oakwell could see them overtaken by Bournemouth or Brentford. This meeting comes exactly a month after the sides last met at the Liberty Stadium where Swansea triumphed 2-0.
You’re just going to watch Leicester v Southampton, aren’t you?
European game to watch – Inter Milan v Juventus
Lockdown won’t be so bad this weekend since we’re spoiled for choice for big games across Europe.
Friday night offers three options: the Rome derby which sees third-placed Roma face Lazio; there’s Porto versus Benfica from Portugal; or third against fifth from the Bundesliga with Bayer Leverkusen travelling to Union Berlin.
On Sunday afternoon Ajax and Feyenoord, the Eredivisie’s top two, clash but the second half in Amsterdam will kick off at the same time as Liverpool take on United.
More conveniently, the Derby d’Italia offers the perfect way to wrap up your weekend. Last season’s top two in Serie A meet at 7:45pm. Inter remain in second place but while Juventus are fifth, Andrea Pirlo’s side are in better form than their hosts having won their last three. Inter have picked up only four points in the same period.
Staying in and shunning the outside world has never been easier.