Premier League’s super Sunday: 6 title questions that will be answered as top four teams clash
It looks like a pivotal weekend for the destination of this season’s title as Leicester face Arsenal and Manchester City take on Tottenham Hotspur
Valentine’s Day looks being pivotal in the Premier League title race as the top four teams clash, with leaders Leicester at third-placed Arsenal and second-placed Tottenham at fourth-placed Manchester City. It’s only the sixth time in Premier League history that the top four have played each other on the same day and the title picture could be a lot clearer come Monday. Here’s six questions that could be answered this weekend:
Is this Leicester’s final big test?
Claudio Ranieri’s Foxes have taken a remarkable 12 points from their seven games against the clubs in the top six. If they beat Arsenal, they’ll be five to seven points clear of their nearest rivals, with a beautiful looking run-in mostly against the league’s also-rans. Only five of their remaining 12 games after Arsenal are against teams currently in the top half of the table, and only two against teams in the top six. And with no cups or European football to distract them, they’ll have ample rest.
And is it Arsenal’s last chance?
Arsenal on the other hand surely must win to keep their title hopes alive after a bad run of form. They’ve only taken nine points from their last six league games and were four without a win until beating struggling Bournemouth last Sunday. The next two weeks sees key games in three competitions: after Leicester they face Hull City in the FA Cup, Barcelona in the Champions League and another top-six league clash, against Manchester United. At either end of the spectrum, Arsene Wenger’s men could be top of the league and riding high on a wave of confidence come March, or have essentially nothing left to play for. “It is another must-win game,” Wenger admitted. “We play at home, we will have our fans behind us and of course we are playing now against one of the favourites for the Premier League.”
Will Wenger play right into Ranieri’s hands?
It seems strange to say that Arsenal could be perfect opponents for Leicester, given that the Londoners hammered Ranieri’s side 5-2 in Leicester in September, their first defeat (and one of only two all season). But Leicester were leaking goals galore in those early days when we all thought their success was a curious blip soon to be corrected. Before that meeting, they’d let in nine goals in their first six games, while their recent record is only three from eight. Ranieri’s team have the worst pass completion in the league and the third-worst possession, as they’ve proven that Barca-style tiki-taka is not the only way to win games. They’ll be delighted to let Arsenal have the ball, win it, then ping it immediately to Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy.
Wenger is famous for sticking to his principles – to a fault, some would say – and not changing his team to adapt to opponents’ styles. But as Manchester City found last week, failing to negate Leicester’s strengths can be costly. Wenger needs a big performance from Alexis Sanchez, who scored a hat trick in the last meeting at Leicester but has been subdued recently since his return from injury and hasn’t scored in the league since October. But perhaps the key factor will be further back in midfield, where Santi Cazorla has been badly missed, and Leicester’s tigerish N’Golo Kante will fancy his chances of dominating Aaron Ramsey and Mathieu Flamini / Fernando Coquelin.
Could Spurs actually win this thing?
Amid the delighted hullabaloo around Leicester, Tottenham have snuck up almost unnoticed at the top. They’ve only lost two of their last 24 games in the Premier League, and it’s been something of a mystery that Mauricio Pochettino’s name never comes up when clubs like Chelsea need a new manager (although he’d maybe see that as a step down at present). The assumption’s been that they’ll ‘do a Spurs’ and fade away at some point, but Pochettino admits: “You can see in their eyes, the feeling, the energy, that they believe [they can win the league]. Belief is the most important word. If we believe, anything can happen.”
Will this be another example of why City need Pep Guardiola?
Mauricio Pellegrini has received plaudits for the ‘classy’ way he’s handled the news that he’s getting binned at the end of the season for the Bayern Munich boss (presumably a gigantic payoff is helping him come to terms with that). But for all that he may be a lovely chap, the suspicion remains that he’s a step below the truly top managers. Despite City’s riches and squad depth, he almost threw the title away in 2013-14 and let Chelsea limp over the line last season. City’s form against the other teams in the top six this season is absolutely abysmal – 0 wins, 3 draws, 4 defeats for an average of 0.42 points per game – underlining the suspicion that he doesn’t have what it takes in the big games. On the other hand, City have beaten Spurs five times in a row in their recent home games against them in all competitions and the Londoners haven’t won at the Etihad since 2010.
Could Spurs’ fitness be the key?
Despite their wealth, City’s squad is looking very thin for this game, with Kevin de Bruyne, Samir Nasri, Wilfried Bony, Eliaquim Mangala and Jesus Navas all out and David Silva doubtful. All would likely have been involved if fit. The good news is that Vincent Kompany seems fit, meaning Pellegrini can ditch the hapless Martin Demichelis at the back (at fault for all three of Leicester’s goals last weekend).
Spurs have a much smaller squad but have perhaps used it better: apart from key figures in the spine – Hugo Lloris in goal, the centre backs, Eric Dier in defensive midfield and Harry Kane up front – Pochettino has shared out the starting places quite freely in recent weeks, having depended on a fairly rigid first XI for the first half of the season. Jan Vertonghen is the only first-teamer out of action. Though Spurs are at or near the top of distance covered and sprints statistics, and still involved in three competitions, the players seem to be coping with Pochettino’s demand for non-stop work.