W2W4 previews the weekend’s Premier League fixtures and highlights five key storylines.
Will Liverpool deliver in a big game to halt their miserable 2017?
Liverpool’s first Premier League win of 2017 could well come against second-placed Tottenham, of all teams. This is because performing against heavyweights has not really been a problem under Jurgen Klopp. It is in these more open games where the opponents are willing to have possession rather than afford it to the Reds when Klopp’s side tends to shine. But when they are allowed it themselves and the other team sits deep, they struggle — see last weekend’s match with Hull City when Liverpool had 72 percent of the ball but lost 2-0. Klopp will also have had a full week’s preparation with his seemingly leggy players ahead of Saturday’s kickoff against Spurs, something severely lacking in a congested January that yielded just one win … against League Two Plymouth.
Not that Tottenham will roll over and have their bellies tickled. This is a side built of stern stuff largely thanks to the superb work of manager Mauricio Pochettino. If there is a title race remaining (there isn’t) then Spurs are probably the only side with the guts to keep clawing at Chelsea’s heels. Before their late capitulation, it was Tottenham who pushed eventual champions Leicester last season. This time around, they have the air of a team who have learned from those lessons, when emotions and aggression boiled over in a decisive game at Chelsea. Tottenham have also shown they boast what Liverpool do not: an ability to break down opponents who seek to frustrate and nullify. With a maturing squad, a sharp boss and a new stadium on the way, the future is bright in North London.
Should Leicester follow Swansea’s lead by sacking Claudio Ranieri?
This. Is. Huge. Leicester’s downward spiral continued last Sunday with an awful offering as they lost 3-0 at home to Manchester United. The champions still haven’t scored a Premier League goal in 2017 and are just a point above the relegation zone. There has not been even a crumb of evidence Leicester’s form is about to change either, and hence relegation looks set to follow glory. With this season’s title race all but done and dusted, it is at the wrong end of the table where the genuine drama lies. Two points separate the bottom six clubs. And in Leicester you have a moral dilemma of whether to stick or twist with Ranieri, a manager who led the team to inconceivable success last term but now looks to have, incredibly, lost his players. Swansea are unfortunate opponents for Ranieri, too, as their appointing Paul Clement has seen a sharp upturn in form.
Can Arsene Wenger show he is not finished at Arsenal?
It’s hard to have any confidence that Arsenal won’t avoid a third straight loss against Hull City on Saturday lunchtime. The defeats to Watford and then Chelsea were both atrocious in their own right, each one reiterating the deep-rooted problems at Arsenal with a horrible scream. Unless you consider finishing in the top four some sort of thrill ride and achievement to gloat about, it’s becoming increasingly hard to justify manager Wenger staying on beyond this summer. The consistent failures against their rivals are inexcusable. Arsenal should be wary of Hull, a team reborn under manager Marco Silva, who has overseen wins against United and Liverpool since his appointment. While Silva has yet to triumph on the road, a visit to a toxic Emirates could be just the opportunity his relegation-threatened side needs to boost their hopes ahead of a colossal run against Burnley, Leicester and Swansea.
What next for the wonderful Romelu Lukaku?
Lukaku continues to do pretty remarkable things at Everton and some continue to just shrug like it’s not that impressive. His four-goal haul against Bournemouth last weekend sees him as this season’s top goal scorer with 16. He’s scored 76 goals in 172 top-flight appearances — that’s a strike almost every two matches while playing for West Brom and Everton. The Belgium international also has 26 assists. He is one goal away from equalling Duncan Ferguson’s club-record Premier League haul of 60 goals for Everton. All this and he’s still only 23. It’s Middlesbrough’s defence up next for Lukaku and Everton, who are a seventh-placed team boasting a first-class striker.
How will Bournemouth’s shambolic defence cope against Manchester City?
Since winning at Swansea on New Year’s Eve, Bournemouth have not won any of their proceeding five Premier League games, conceding 16 (sixteen!) goals in the process. After being talked about as the next possible England manager or even Wenger’s successor at Arsenal, Eddie Howe is currently staring at a fraught end to the campaign as he looks to stave off relegation. In truth, battling against the drop is probably about par for Bournemouth — they simply set a high bar after making relatively light work of survival last term. And for a team leaking goals, a visit from Manchester City is hardly what the doctor ordered. In spite of City’s flaws in defence, their frontline is frankly terrifying — for any team to have the luxury of leaving Sergio Aguero on the bench is a joke.
James Dall is an associate editor at ESPN FC. You can follow him on Twitter @JamesDallESPN.