Premier League this weekend – Everton and Romelu Lukaku get to shift their attention to the pitch, Liverpool face off with Manchester City, and Spurs look to push on without Harry Kane
1) All eyes on Lukaku
Everton-owned strikers will provide two causes for regret at Goodison Park on Saturday. Hull City miss Oumar Niasse, the on-loan centre-forward whose goals against Swansea City last week have made escaping the drop a realistic proposition, as he is ineligible to face the club that froze him out within months of arriving from Lokomotiv Moscow. That is poor timing as Marco Silva looks to create some momentum but Everton have concerns of their own. Romelu Lukaku and his family are hardly known for reticence but his clearly voiced concerns about the club’s ambition, hot on the heels of rejecting a new contract, have rung alarm bells. The long-range view is that Lukaku is an outstanding talent who is within his rights to require that Everton kick on if he is not to seek the upgrade his ability merits; in the shorter term Ronald Koeman may need to work overtime in order to hold Lukaku’s gaze. A year ago to the weekend Lukaku, previously in electric form, began a goal drought that ran to the end of the season. It was widely held that he and Everton had cooled under Roberto Martínez; another drop-off now would put some very positive work to waste.
2) Liverpool need Coutinho firing again
When these sides met at the Etihad in November 2015, Liverpool blew City away in a match that showed exactly why Jürgen Klopp had been given a job and exactly why Manuel Pellegrini was soon to lose one. City, as they were back then, are third leading into Sunday’s fixture and Liverpool – ninth when they handed out that beating – sit fourth. Whether much else has really changed in the interim is moot but one unhappy development for Klopp has been the tailing-off of Philippe Coutinho’s form. Coutinho was one of the driving forces behind that win last season but, since returning in January from the ankle injury that laid him low for six weeks, has been nowhere near his devastating best. That has been one reason for Liverpool’s inconsistency and it was a sign of his malaise that Ben Woodburn was summoned from the bench to replace him last weekend as they struggled to break down Burnley. It is hard to see Coutinho dropping out of the starting lineup to face City – this looks a fine opportunity for Klopp’s team, who are reliably switched-on against top opposition and can capitalise on any post-Monaco dejection – but if Liverpool are to rediscover the magic of that carefree evening 16 months ago they will need him to find form quickly.
3) A crucial moment in Wilshere’s career
If suggestions that Bournemouth are cooling on the idea of signing Jack Wilshere permanently this summer do not tell the former future of English football that he is in serious danger of squandering his serious talent, then it is tempting to conclude that nothing will. It is strange to think that Wilshere turned 25 in January – some players, such as Joe Cole or Shaun Wright-Phillips, aren’t meant to grow old – and even more perplexing that a player of his obvious class might not have a future at either Arsenal or Bournemouth. Injuries have played their part, of course, and the midfielder has endured some rotten luck during his stop-start career, but there have also been times when his attitude has been called into question. The sad thing is that Santi Cazorla’s absence means that Arsenal probably could have done with Wilshere recently; instead he has started on the bench in Bournemouth’s previous two matches. An unused substitute in the 1-1 draw at Old Trafford a fortnight ago, he did come on in the 85th minute against West Ham United last Saturday and had a hand in Josh King’s winner, sparking an attack with one of those little bursts through the middle. But Eddie Howe is no fool. He has praised Wilshere’s reaction to being dropped and explained it in tactical terms, saying that he wanted to pair King with another striker and play four in midfield. With Dan Gosling and Harry Arter playing well against West Ham, however, and Andrew Surman available for the visit of Swansea City after serving a one-match ban, Wilshere will have to work hard to regain his place.
4) Boro to cut loose after losing Karanka?
5) Son set to shine in Kane’s absence
With Harry Kane facing another spell on the sidelines, you could be forgiven for thinking that Vincent Janssen picked a good moment to open his account in open play for Tottenham Hotspur in last Sunday’s FA Cup thrashing of Millwall. But the Dutch forward has often been overlooked in recent weeks and while the 22-year-old could yet become a potent force if Mauricio Pochettino gives him time to adapt to the demands of the Premier League, there is precious little evidence at the moment that he is capable of standing in for a player who has scored 24 goals this season. What a cruel blow it is for Tottenham to lose Kane now. Bearing in mind how Tottenham struggled without him during the autumn months, his ankle injury could easily derail their hopes of finishing in the top four, unless Pochettino finds a way to reconfigure his attack. Plan A is unlikely to involve Janssen, who does not look mobile enough to start for a top Premier League side yet, and instead the responsibility of filling in for Kane will probably fall to Son Heung-min, who impressed up front in the win over Manchester City in October. Yet while the South Korean is nimble, inventive and capable of chipping in with important goals, he is comfortable starting in deeper positions and did not convince as a No9 during Kane’s earlier absence. Yes, Son scored a hat-trick in his last match, but Southampton’s defence is slightly better than Millwall’s. Tottenham could be in for a frustrating afternoon against Claude Puel’s side on Sunday.
6) Will Ramsey kick life back into Arsenal’s top-four push?
This is probably West Bromwich’s Albion’s last chance to stay in the argument for Europa League spots, after last weekend’s defeat at Everton. The significance to Arsenal’s grip on the Champions League race is pronounced, too, and even if they have played fewer games than those above them it is getting to the stage where you would rather have the points on the board. Arsène Wenger kept the bulk of his first-choice side together for the FA Cup win over Lincoln City in order to restore their confidence; how much succour you can really take from rattling in four second-half goals against flagging National League opponents is unknown but if it did help them rediscover some forgotten rhythm it will have been worthwhile. One player who may have felt the benefit is Aaron Ramsey, who scored only his second goal of the season last Saturday; it came from a matter of centimetres out and his radar had been off before that, but they all count and Ramsey is certainly someone who falls into the “confidence player” category. When Ramsey was younger he used to get into the right areas but not finish often enough; a purple patch three years ago seemed to have put that right but in recent times both the goals and the near-misses have dried up. If he can kick on now then Arsenal’s chances of climbing back into the top four will be greatly enhanced.
7) Patient Fàbregas to create problems for Stoke?
Cesc Fàbregas’s days at Chelsea looked numbered at the start of the season. Antonio Conte seemed less than convinced by the Spaniard’s worth and there would not have been much of an outcry if Chelsea had decided to sell him. N’Golo Kanté and Nemanja Matic were Conte’s first choice in central midfield and Fàbregas had to be content with a bit-part role. Yet the 29-year-old has responded impressively to being dropped. There have been no tantrums, no public outbursts, no shows of dissent towards his manager. Instead he has knuckled down, remained professional and shown patience. His reward came when he started and scored against Swansea last month and Conte demonstrated his faith in Fàbregas by picking him again for the potentially awkward trip to West Ham last week. Although Matic returned against Manchester United on Monday, Fàbregas’s creativity could prove useful against Stoke City.
8) Ndidi to be Shakespeare’s leading player again
When Wilfred Ndidi joined Leicester for £15m in January it was more than reasonable to expect a settling-in period for a 20-year-old midfielder whose previous club experience had been in Belgium and Nigeria. It was not the easiest of beginnings, coming into the side just as they entered freefall, but his quality stood out even when the Foxes were losing every week and he will travel to West Ham as one of the first names on Craig Shakespeare’s teamsheet. Against Sevilla on Tuesday night Ndidi was the best midfielder on view, helping to compact the space in front of the defence while using the ball intelligently. Nobody expects the superhuman ground-coverage of N’Golo Kanté but he does not do a bad job on that front either. Leicester’s post-Ranieri bounce gets its first test away from the King Power Stadium against a West Ham side whose season has gone absolutely nowhere; victory would make relegation an increasingly distant concern and might raise hopes that, with a player of Ndidi’s potential at their heart, they have a platform to push on once more next season.
9) Sunderland simply must add to Burnley’s away-day blues
It is true that the worst-case scenario for Sunderland involves Burnley winning away from home for the first time this season. Given that Sean Dyche’s side have picked up only two points on the road, perhaps it is unlikely to materialise. Yet if events conspire against Sunderland this weekend, they could find themselves nine points off a safe position with 10 matches left. Mathematically they would still be in with a chance of staying up. Realistically, however, they will be all but down if they subject their long-suffering supporters to another grim afternoon at the Stadium of Light on Saturday. Sunderland have lost their past three matches, scoring none and conceding eight, and victory over Burnley would not be enough to lift them off the foot of the table. But they simply have to win. Otherwise they can start planning for life in the Championship.
10) Watford bid to get out of Palace’s sight
Watford’s win at Arsenal six weeks ago looks like an outlier in a muddled season that has generally bobbed along in the mid-table wastelands but now carries the faintest hint of danger. They have won twice in 12 games, picking up 10 points in that time, and while it would take further deterioration for them to skirt the bottom three they are probably a club relieved that the games are starting to run out. Losing to Crystal Palace would suddenly bring the Eagles to within three points of them and Sam Allardyce, who has overseen a mini-revival with two straight wins, could probably not wish for a more appetising home fixture at this stage. Then again, perhaps M’Baye Niang and Troy Deeney will turn it on for the visitors; it is so hard to know and you wonder whether, after a while, Watford’s constant turnover of players just gets a little bit wearing for anybody with an interest despite the successes of the Pozzo era. They have certainly lacked any kind of consistency or momentum this season and perhaps the biggest positive at the moment is that, if they come undone at Selhurst Park, their next fixture is Sunderland (h).