After an exciting three days of European football, in which we’ve seen shock results and last minute drama, this weekend of domestic football offers something of a break before it all starts again. However, just like in Europe, no opponent can be taken for granted as we approach the closing stages of one of the most tense Premier League seasons in years. Whilst we may not see any title deciding matches, it could be a very significant weekend in both the fights for a top 4 spot and for Premier League survival.
Perhaps the most eye-catching encounter of the entire weekend is that of Arsenal against Manchester United. The two sides go into the match coming off of very different experiences in their European ties. Both faced French opponents, United facing a trip to PSG and Arsenal to Stade Rennais. Looking at those games, Arsenal clearly looked like the side most likely to come out victorious with United up against one of the best teams in Europe. Yet, it was the complete opposite that happened. As I’m sure you’re aware by now, United made history by overturning a 0-2 deficit from the first leg, winning the second 1-3 and progressing to the Quarter-finals on away goals. Whilst the scoreline was the same when Arsenal faced Stade Rennais, it was the English side on the receiving end of it. The Gunners looked comfortable for much of the first half taking an early lead and creating plenty more chances. However, the game was flipped on its head when Sokratis saw red after three clumsy challenges, the home side equalising from the resulting free-kick. Asenal were always going to be up against it, playing with 10 men for over half the game, and that proved true. They conceded twice more leaving them requiring yet another European comeback in the second leg at the Emirates.
Rather than focusing on how that second leg might play out, let’s look at the impact these results may have when Arsenal and United go head to head on Sunday. Clearly, not that they particularly needed it, United are going to be hugely boosted by their result against PSG. The Red Devils will go into the game confident that, even with all their injury troubles, they can earn all three points. A few key individuals, Paul Pogba in particular, will be making a return to the side after he was absent from the trip to Paris due to suspension. Everything seems to be going United’s and Solskjaer’s way at the moment making it difficult to bet against them regardless of who they are coming up against. Prior to last night’s game, the same could be said for Emery’s men. Arsenal have been in fine form recently putting five past Bournemouth and earning a point at Wembley against their fierce rivals, Toteenham, in a game they really should have won. As much as their trip to France clearly didn’t go as they would have hoped, it shouldn’t be viewed as something that makes United obvious favourites in Sunday’s clash. As mentioned, Arsenal played very well for a lot of the first half; if any more goals were going to be scored, it looked likely that they would come from the Gunners. This may well have been the case had it not been for a needless red card to one of their key men at the back. Sokratis will almost certainly still feature against United; if he and the rest of the team can avoid the sort silly mistake he made then there’s no reason why Arsenal can’t beat a rejuvenated United side. Whoever comes out on top, this game is one that is guaranteed to be significant in deciding who claims that all important 4th place.
All the other games involving sides towards the top end of the table appear much easier to predict. Tottenham are the only side from the top 6, other than United, who face an away trip visiting relegation threatened Southampton. The Saints looked impressive in their narrow defeat to Manchester United so there’s every chance that they could cause Spurs a few problems. Spurs have been in poor form domestically but bounced back in Europe to comfortably knock out Bundesliga leaders Dortmund 0-4 on aggregate. They will have to do the same this weekend if they want to eliminate any risk of them falling further behind the top 2 and getting sucked into a hard-fought scrap for a Champions League spot. London rivals Chelsea face a similar sort of game at home to Wolves, a side who have pulled off results against a number of the top teams this season. Nonetheless, it’s the type of game that Chelsea simply can’t afford to lose. The Blues are arguably in pole position when it comes to the race for 4th place and they won’t want to let that slip. The Europa League is growing in importance for them but if they are unable to win that, a top 4 spot is the one thing that could save the underfire Sarri. League leaders Man City and second placed Liverpool both have home games against Watford and Burnley respectively. I’m sure City won’t enjoy their nearest title contenders demolishing any side, but the fact that Liverpool recently did that against Watford may give City some confidence that they can do the same. Like Wolves, the Hornets have impressed everyone this season and are certainly a side capable of causing an upset. Although Burnley have struggled for much of this season, the same could be said for them. They recently beat Spurs 2-1, a result that virtually sunk any hopes of Spurs making a late push for the title. Having said this, even getting a draw away to either of the top two is a huge ask for any mid-table or bottom-half side. Liverpool will expect to get back to winning ways and City to keep up their momentum taking the title challenge right down to the wire.
Understandably, most of the focus at this point in the season will be on the top of the table, but the battle at the bottom is one which produces twists and turns pretty much every week. Yes, some might argue it’s not as entertaining this season as it has been in the past because two of the three relegation spots have virtually been decided. Fulham and Huddersfield are 10 and 13 points adrift; for sides who have been struggling to win games all season, making up that sort of ground with such a limited number of games remaining is extremely difficult. Yet, we’ve seen miracles happen before and even if one doesn’t happen, one other side is still going to face the drop. Most sides in the bottom half are realistically still at risk of going down so every encounter at the bottom is a crucial one. Whilst Crystal Palace and Brighton aren’t in immediate danger, both are far from guaranteed safety. Even without this being an added incentive when the two sides face each other, both teams will be desperate to win. It’s safe to say that they are each others’ biggest rivals which can frequently lead to tempers flaring and added drama. Palace will go into the game as favourites, Brighton being on somewhat of a slump, but, as is often the case with grudge matches, form ends up not playing a role. If you can help it, you certainly won’t want to miss this one.
On paper, aside from the Arsenal and Manchester United encounter, this weekend of Premier League football looks like quite an ordinary one. All the other top sides are playing in games that you’d predict them to win with a certain degree of ease. However, it’s not often in the Premier League that every team you’d expect to win does in fact do that. There’s every chance that at least one upset could occur which could play a role at both the top and bottom of the table. Of course, we can’t forget that we have the drama of Arsenal Vs Manchester United and Crystal Palace Vs Brighton to enjoy as well.