European battle leaves homefront exposed as Leicester City and Manchester United face crunch time
With Champions League and Europa League quarter-final second legs next week, a number of key players will be rested this weekend in the Premier League
As if betting on the English Premier League was not difficult enough, the final weeks of the season always throw a different set of imponderables into the mix, and one that could play a big part this weekend is the European factor in Crystal Palace against Leicester City and Manchester United against Chelsea.
Leicester are at home to Atletico Madrid in the second leg of their Champions League quarter-final next week, while United host Anderlecht in their return match at the same stage of the Europa League.
With both ties finely balanced, it is likely that a number of key players will be rested this weekend to keep them sharp for European battle.
Premier League points are not as vital for Leicester now that they have moved eight points clear of the relegation zone, and interim manager Craig Shakespeare has been able to switch his main focus to the Champions League.
That was evident last week when Leicester went to Everton in the Premier League and Shakespeare held back five of his first-choice line-up for the Champions League first leg, including both fullbacks and important attackers Riyad Mahrez and Shinji Okazaki. In addition, Jamie Vardy came off after an hour of the Everton match.
With Everton in good form, Leicester would have faced a tough match anyway and, with the level of difficulty increased by the absence of so many first-team players, they lost 4-2.
Lack of rotation puts title rivals in a spin as Antonio Conte’s Chelsea close in on Premier League trophy
A similar scenario could unfold on Saturday against Crystal Palace, who are also one of the Premier League’s form teams after a run of five wins in their last six games.
Palace are six points clear of the drop zone, which means they are a little more in need of points than Leicester.
With Sam Allardyce surely keen to secure Premier League safety as soon as possible, Palace look decent odds given that Leicester are likely to put out a largely second-string side.
Even without that factor, Palace would rate a decent chance as they have won their last three home games without conceding, while Leicester’s away record still features only one win this season, against far less resolute West Ham United.
Manchester United’s position is more complex as they are still firmly in the hunt for a top-four finish as well as the Europa League triumph that would take them into next season’s Champions League. There is a conflict of interest between those two positions and, while it has been pretty clear in recent weeks that Jose Mourinho is looking more towards the Europa League, it is not easy for such a big club to be prepared to give up points at home to Chelsea in pursuit of that ambition.
On top of that, of course, Mourinho would be naturally keen to beat Chelsea, but still he is likely to look at the bigger picture and keep some of his first-choice players fresh for the Anderlecht match.
Any weakness is likely to be exploited by Chelsea and the league leaders rate the handicap pick. Their record against the rest of the big six is won five, drawn one and lost three, but two of the defeats came before Antonio Conte found his best formation.
Since then Chelsea have beaten Manchester United twice at Stamford Bridge, 4-0 in the Premier League and 1-0 in the FA Cup albeit with Mourinho’s side depleted in the cup match by Ander Herrera’s contentious first-half dismissal.
United have won only one of their six games against the big six this season and it is notable that they have scored just four goals in those matches.
Their goals-against is low too, with eight conceded, but it is not easy to stop Chelsea, who have scored in 29 of their last 30 matches in all competitions with the only blank coming in the 2-0 defeat at Tottenham Hotspur at the start of January.
The other big issue for punters to weigh up is the extent to which mid-table teams are trying in the final weeks of the season.
Long shot Lincoln City give under pressure Arsene Wenger easy target as Arsenal face FA Cup quarter-final test
West Bromwich Albion’s form has tailed off significantly since they reached 40 points and a similar pattern may emerge with other teams in the congested zone from eighth to 14th.
That is going to make a number of matches difficult to assess and punters may wonder about the motivation of Watford at home to Swansea City and West Brom when they host Liverpool on Sunday night. The need for points is more obvious for relegation-threatened Swansea and Champions League chasers Liverpool.
If Juergen Klopp plays Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino from the start, Liverpool look one of the better bets of the weekend.
Liverpool, Hoffenheim, Bologna.
Crystal Palace home win
Good chance against Leicester
Chelsea on handicap
Solid choice against United
Cologne on handicap
Strong record against bottom six
Eibar on handicap
Only defeats in 2017 have been against top-four sides
Sevilla on handicap
Class act underrated at the odds
Matches without scoring for Sunderland