Two points separate the Premier League’s title contenders, while three points cover the four clubs fighting for the last two Champions League places. The FA Cup is into the semifinals and the business end of the season is upon us — Nick Miller lays out the weekend’s biggest storylines.
Is this Liverpool’s trickiest remaining fixture?
They may sit two places above the relegation zone and aren’t safe just yet, but Southampton has proved a tricky place for some of the big boys to visit this season. Arsenal and Tottenham have both lost there, Manchester United were held to a draw, and even Manchester City briefly looked in trouble before an own goal and the ruthless genius of Sergio Aguero sorted them out.
It has taken a little while for it to show in consistent results, but manager Ralph Hasenhuttl has whipped a side that were plummeting under Mark Hughes into terrific shape, rapid and tactically flexible and capable of ambushing teams before they know what’s happened, which is exactly how it panned out a couple of weeks ago against Spurs.
Liverpool’s run-in theoretically looks easier than City’s because they have to play only one big-six team in Chelsea — City have two, United and Tottenham — but that’s at Anfield and given the state of Maurizio Sarri’s side at the moment, you wouldn’t expect the Reds to slip up. On paper, their next-toughest fixture is Wolves, which is on the final day and who knows how that will pan out.
Before all that, Southampton on Friday night. Liverpool have to be pretty flawless in their remaining six games to win the title, and you could make a convincing case that this trip to St Mary’s is the toughest test they’ll face.
Arsenal need to sort out away form
There’s an air of cautious optimism around Arsenal at the moment. They have already matched last season’s points total and have a strong chance of making the top four after two seasons out of it. Tottenham look tired, Manchester United are wobbling and Chelsea are Chelsea. From that perspective, things look good.
The problem is that five of their remaining seven games are away from home, and the only side they have beaten on the road in the Premier League since November is Huddersfield. On Sunday they travel to Everton, and who knows what they can expect there, but if they want to return to the Champions League then they must do something about their travel sickness as quickly as possible.
Could Cardiff be relegated when they’re not playing?
Part of the reason Neil Warnock was so upset about Cesar Azpilicueta‘s incorrectly allowed goal against Chelsea last weekend was because, well, he’s Neil Warnock. He gets upset about refereeing decisions he believes have gone against him. It’s what he does. But of course the other reason was he watched three precious points trickle down the plughole, which puts Cardiff in an extremely precarious position.
They’re five points from safety and don’t have a game this weekend, but three of the four teams above them do. Should they all win — slightly unlikely, admittedly — then with six games remaining the only realistic team Cardiff could probably reel in is Brighton, who have played a game more.
It’s a minor miracle that Cardiff are even in the Premier League, and quite an effort that they’ve stayed alive for this long. But their scrap could realistically end this weekend, when they’re not even playing.
Parking the bus doesn’t work against City
Manchester City have played 50 games in all competitions this season. Those games have brought 144 goals. They’ve scored five or more on 10 different occasions. They’ve failed to score three times only against Liverpool once and Chelsea twice.
This tells you a number of things, and one of them is that against all but the elite sides, they score goals. On plenty of occasions this term, a smaller side has set up against City to contain, to try to stop them from scoring. It hasn’t worked. It doesn’t work. City’s attack is too good to contain and frustrate.
When Brighton face them in the FA Cup semifinal this weekend (live on ESPN+, Saturday, 12.30 p.m.), the desire to err on the side of caution is entirely understandable. “It’s foolish to go toe to toe and I’m not embarrassed to say you have to try and contain them,” Chris Hughton said this week. “If you play an open game they have too many options and too many strategies to open you up.”
But there is a middle ground here. Being open and parking the bus are not the only two options. There is a way to try being secure but still attack City with some intensity. If a team simply tries to contain, then in all probability they will eventually be picked off. And from a neutral perspective, that will probably make for a pretty boring game. Let’s hope that, in the end, Hughton does tell his team to have a go at City.
Watford and Wolves can create something memorable
The idea of winning things is a rather old-fashioned one in modern football. It’s a luxury afforded to the very biggest teams, while the rest consider success to be over-achievement based on their finances. Still, given the way the game is structured to prevent all but the very best from winning trophies, they’re right to think that way.
Watford and Wolves (live on ESPN+, Sunday, 11 a.m. ET) have arguably been the two biggest success stories of the Premier League this season, and are favourites to finish as “best of the rest.” But will they remember that in years to come? Will most fans pour themselves a drink and tell their grandkids to gather round as they tell them about the year when good coaching and some shrewd moves in the transfer market helped them finish seventh?
Of course not. Fans, and clubs, remember moments of glory. They remember goals in big games, they remember emotions, they remember finals. One of these two terrific teams will give their fans something to remember in their FA Cup semifinal on Sunday, and in the end that’s all that really matters.