It’s a big start to the new year for tetchy Tuchel and cranky Klopp. It’s also a biggie for Dominic Calvert-Lewin and whoever manages Arsenal.
Game to watch – Chelsea v Liverpool
If the title race isn’t already over, it almost certainly will be for whichever side doesn’t take three points from Stamford Bridge on Sunday.
For Thomas Tuchel, it doesn’t seem to matter anyway. The Chelsea manager wants you to believe that his side haven’t a hope of catching Manchester City, even if stranger things have happened.
You can’t blame tetchy Thomas. He has watched his side drop points in three of their last four Premier League games to leave themselves three wins off a Manchester City side getting into their stride. The injuries are piling up and he’s searching high and low for wing-backs to take on Liverpool’s full-backs, but he isn’t finding much sympathy after whining about everything from “exhaustion” to “horrible” decisions in the last-gasp draw with Brighton.
Tuchel will have had three days to pick his lip up by the time Liverpool rock up at Anfield, with Jurgen Klopp in no cheerier a mood.
“Not good enough” was his verdict on the Reds’ performance at Leicester and Liverpool supporters were even more damning in the post-match Mailbox. Fresh from a brief break and facing a side ravaged with injuries and reeling from being given the run-around at Manchester City two days prior, Liverpool contrived to waste what chances they created during a worryingly stodgy performance.
Klopp wasn’t willing to write off his side in the title race, but defeat or perhaps even a draw at Chelsea will allow everyone else to make their own simple conclusions. This is must-win for both cranky Germans on the sidelines.
Manager to watch – whomever sits in for Mikel Arteta
This preview is being written just shy of 48 hours before kick-off – if it even gets that far – and a lot can happen between now and 12:30pm on Saturday. As it stands, Albert Stuivenberg is due to take charge of Arsenal when the champions and leaders roll into north London.
Who? Stuivenberg, one of Louis van Gaal’s old assistants at Man Utd is, at the time of writing, the only first-team coach available to sit in the dugout. He may well be assisted by academy manager Per Mertesacker – unless the ‘rona gets them, too.
Who AirPod Albert will pass the earbuds to is unclear. Perhaps they will serve as a direct line to Arteta in his Covid bunker. But Stuivenberg has been trusted to lead before. “At United, I was doing all the pre-match team-talks and I did all the post-match talk with the team and individuals. Van Gaal gave me his complete trust,” he once said of his time at Old Trafford.
Arteta’s absence comes at perhaps the worst possible time. The Spaniard would no doubt have liked to have welcomed back his old boss, mentor and style idol Pep Guardiola, before taking revenge for the 5-0 humping at the Etihad back in August that left Arteta clinging to his job.
But Arsenal are in a very different place now compared to four months ago. Arteta starts 2022 with his position on a firmer footing than at any other point during his two-year reign – certainly more secure than the last meeting between City and Arsenal, after which the manager became a figure of fun.
That said, Arsenal always feel just a couple of games from another crisis. Beating City, or simply giving them a game, will highlight again the fine work done by Arteta, even in his absence.
Team to watch – Newcastle
That was much better. Granted, Manchester United were bloody awful on Monday night, but Eddie Howe will have seen plenty of reason for encouragement, even before he goes shopping for a new defence and whatever other trinkets he can pick up in the January sales.
Now we wait to see if Newcastle can sustain their improvement when they make the trek to Southampton on Sunday. And that’s assuming they even embark upon the journey – with injuries piling up and Covid still an issue, it seems hard to believe that the Magpies won’t try to get the trip postponed until a more convenient time.
You don’t have to agree with the principle to understand Howe’s thinking if he took that approach, given the point against Manchester United came at a heavy cost. Callum Wilson and Allan Saint-Maximin look set to miss the trip St Mary’s, while Isaac Hayden is sidelined for some time after a knee op. Ryan Fraser also picked up a knock to go with however many Covid cases may be keeping their distance from St James’ Park right now.
So we know they won’t be firing on all cylinders, but Newcastle’s biggest weakness is their defence, which hasn’t been ravaged enough by illness or injury to have an excuse. Many of Howe’s defenders will know they are mere days from being replaced but their performance against Cristiano Ronaldo, Edinson Cavani, Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, Bruno Fernandes and co. suggested they aren’t willing to give up their places without a fight.
But Howe can’t afford to wait for reinforcements before chasing points. The same resilience is required once more against a Saints side with only one win in their last eight.
Player to watch – Dominic Calvert-Lewin
Arteta will also be keeping a close eye on Calvert-Lewin this weekend, if reports that Arsenal want the Everton striker are to be believed.
Before he worries about any of that, Calvert-Lewin has to focus on getting his groove back for the Toffees. The England centre-forward hasn’t played since the same August day Arsenal were battered by City, with a fracture keeping him sidelined for four months.
And how Everton have missed him. After his three goals in three games at the start of the season, Rafael Benitez’s side have looked woefully limp in attack, with only Demarai Gray outscoring Calvert-Lewin in his absence.
Calvert-Lewin was pencilled in for a return against Burnley on Boxing Day but that fixture, like those either side against Leicester and Newcastle, was postponed due to Covid. Everton should be fresh after almost three weeks off, while their star striker has had an extra week to get up to speed on the training ground. Benitez needs Calvert-Lewin to hit the ground running when Brighton arrive at Goodison on Sunday.
EFL game to watch – Sheffield United v Middlesbrough
If you prefer your fare a little more Championship-y than Arsenal v Manchester City, you can kick off your 2022 with the return of Chris Wilder to Bramall Lane.
Wilder goes back to his beloved Blades for the first time since he was dismissed in March. Since then, he’s begun building a bond with a different set of supporters, and the Boro fans who travelled to Blackpool for injury-time limbs are firmly behind the recently-appointed manager.
Wilder reckons United will have an advantage after an 11-day layoff prompted by postponed fixtures against Preston and Hull, but fifth-placed Boro have a bit of momentum behind them to power through any weariness.
Sheffield United v Boro is one of the featured matches in Benjamin Bloom’s Championship Big Weekend.
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