English Premier League: 10 things to look out for in the midweek matches
Arsenal’s £42.5m man Mesut Ozil needs to find form, Fulham must beware Liverpool’s SASAS and West Ham’s case for the defence.
1) Özil needs to step up
There is little to be gained in writing off a player as brilliant as Mesut Özil, especially as he is still adapting to life in a new country and a new league.
Chances are he’ll make you look stupid at some point, which is why Arsenal broke their transfer record to sign him. Yet the lack of speed in Arsenal’s team has dimmed his effectiveness, lessening the opportunities for him to thread runners through on goal, and people are starting to question that fee after some forgettable performances. It is certainly hard to remember the last time he looked like a £42.5m player.
The 2-0 win over Napoli in September, perhaps? Whenever it was, Arsenal need him to start producing those moments of magic again as they enter what could be a defining period in their season.
While Özil is a player who has always drifted in and out of games, disappearing for long periods and then surprising opponents, lately he has been struggling to find a way back in. After the debacle against Liverpool, what Arsenal would give for an emphatic response from him against Manchester United. JS
2) Fulham should beware Liverpool’s SASAS
With all the attention on the goalscoring exploits of Luis Suárez and Daniel Sturridge at Liverpool, the second coming of Raheem Sterling has been an under-appreciated one.
When he first broke through at 17 he was a player of obvious talent but one without direction and lacking in game discipline – a bit like Florent Sinama-Pongolle except for the talent bit. But since 1 December, when he was brought back into the team as a regular starter, he has hardly put a foot wrong.
His electric pace and intelligent movement makes him perfectly equipped to capitalise on the space left by defenders who focus too heavily on his more-heralded attacking team-mates. But Sterling, as illustrated in his two-goal display against Arsenal, is becoming a vital part of Liverpool’s razor-sharp counter-attacks.
Fulham’s defenders will have to be at the races to keep Liverpool at bay on Wednesday. With Sterling in a front-three, their attacks will be much harder to predict than Manchester United’s. GB
3) West Ham’s case for the defence
After West Ham were outclassed by Newcastle last month – the final score of 3-1 should have been so much more humiliating – Sam Allardyce said that they needed 22 points from their final 16 games to stay up.
Given that they had never won successive games in the Premier League under Allardyce and were conceding goals at an alarming rate, it seemed like an unlikely target.
Yet in their next game they dragged Chelsea back to the 19th century, drawing 0-0, before enjoying back-to-back 2-0 victories over Swansea and Aston Villa; now they are looking for three successive league wins for the first time since May 2007 and will be confident of making that happen against Norwich.
The change in their fortunes is mainly because they are defending properly again, which is hardly a surprise now that their defenders have returned from injury. Their back four against Newcastle featured Razvan Rat at left-back, an unfit James Collins and Roger Johnson in the middle and Matt Taylor out of position on the right.
Rat has been released since then, Collins has been joined by James Tomkins after his suspension, Guy Demel has returned at right-back and Taylor has been surprisingly excellent after moving into central midfield. Winston Reid, their best defender, is also back on the bench after a lengthy absence with an ankle injury and West Ham’s 12 clean sheets are the most any side has kept in the division.
The majority of attention might be on Andy Carroll, both in his absence and when he is available, but it is West Ham’s stinginess that will give them the best chance of staying up – and it helps that Kevin Nolan has regained his touch in front of goal. JS
4) Time for Traoré?
Everton were extremely impressive in most aspects against Tottenham, except for one, namely that for all their possession, intricate build-up and positional dominance, they couldn’t score.
It was a game they probably would have won if Romelu Lukaku had been fit but instead they had the willing but limited Steven Naismith up front, so it was a surprise that Roberto Martínez did not bring on Lacina Traoré once Tottenham had scored.
Perhaps he was saving him for the visit of Crystal Palace, though. Now could be the time to unleash the 6ft 8in striker. JS
5) Will Thievy add some pep to Mel’s attack?
Thievy Bifouma took just seconds to score when he came off the bench to make his West Bromwich Albion debut in the 3-1 defeat by Crystal Palace.
The Baggies looked a different team with him in attack, with Thievy stretching the Palace defence and showing the kind of individual ability that has been lacking since the effervescent Stéphane Sessègnon’s groin injury at the beginning of January.
The 21-year-old forward has talent in spades. He also has a suspect temperament, which has held him back at Espanyol despite his impressive loan spell at Las Palmas last season.
Against a table-topping Chelsea team that resembles a brick wall with huge guns mounted on it, Thievy will do well to make any kind of impact. But he at least offers Pepe Mel, who has endured a difficult start to his managerial tenure at the Hawthorns, the element of the unexpected. And a goal against José Mourinho’s men would certainly be that. GB
6) Will Villa turn to Albrighton?
Marc Albrighton’s career has rather stalled since he burst on to the scene so thrillingly in 2010. Believe it or not, the winger is 24 and is currently residing in what might be known as the Shaun Wright-Phillips zone – the nostalgia-ridden universe where perpetually promising players go to offer tantalising glimpses of talent, before withering away and eventually waking up one morning to discover that while they still look young, they’re actually 32, they’ve lost their pace and they’re playing for a side managed by Harry Redknapp.
Put a bet right now on QPR signing Joe Cole on a free transfer in the summer. Yet it is not too late for Albrighton to make good on his potential.
He has found it difficult to make an impact under Paul Lambert and had a brief spell on loan at Wigan earlier this season, before making a handful of starts for Villa. Yet while Lambert seems to be unconvinced about his worth, Albrighton was actually responsible for Villa’s mini-revival after he was introduced when they were 2-0 to West Ham in the second half.
He hit a post from 25 yards, but more importantly a side that is desperately lacking in creativity at home finally had some width and a player who could deliver crosses for Christian Beneteke to attack. Perhaps all is not lost for Albrighton just yet. JS
7) A goalfest at the Britannia?
The last time these sides met it was 3-3 at the Liberty Stadium, a wonderfully open match in which Stoke scored what was arguably their most tiki-taka goal in recent history.
Mark Hughes has been unlucky at times this season, setting his team up to attack but being undone by the remnants of Pulisball, with ill-discipline at key moments forcing him to rip up his blueprint for a more pleasing-on-the-eye Stoke. By giving Charlie Adam the licence to roam in front of Glenn Whelan and Steven N’Zonzi he has got the midfielder back into the kind of form that earned him a move to Liverpool.
He’s scoring goals and creating them. He’s even taking those famous ‘£10m corners’ again. As for Swansea, Garry Monk’s first match in charge – the confidence-boosting 3-0 win over Cardiff ? showed that perhaps the doughty defender has absorbed more of Brendan Rodgers’s and Roberto Martínez’s tactical nous than expected. They’ll attack Stoke. So expect goals. GB
8) Who will score for Rémy-less Newcastle?
If Tim Sherwood is a lucky manager as some have suggested, then he can thank his good fortune again for his Spurs team facing Newcastle when Loïc Rémy is serving the final game of a three-match ban for a red card he received against Norwich.
Without Rémy, Alan Pardew’s side have looked toothless. Injuries haven’t helped, nor has the departure of Yohan Cabaye to PSG, without a replacement being brought in. Luke de Jong, signed on loan from Borussia Mönchengladbach, has scored precisely no goals in the league this season.
After three goalless performances, Pardew needs his midfielders to step up. Otherwise, Sherwood may enjoy an evening so comfortable that even the Lucozade bottles will be spared a kicking. GB
9) How much do City miss Fernandinho?
In the four matches this season that Manchester City have failed to score, one thing has been notable: Fernandinho’s absence. The Brazilian was never bought for his goalscoring prowess, but he has been the solid base that City have missed since Nigel de Jong’s departure, freeing Yaya Touré to go forwards with devastating effectiveness and keeping the back door shut in the event of a counter-attack. Sunderland have done well against City in recent seasons.
They’ve won the last two meetings 1-0. And while they may not take the initiative at the Etihad, they are set up to be effective on the break – particularly with the former City winger Adam Johnson in such good form.
Gus Poyet may not manage to pull off a shock win the Mourinho way but having seen how City struggle without their Brazilian insurance, he may not be quite so timid in his approach. GB
10) Jelavic and Long in the mood
Remember when Nikica Jelavic was hailed as the best one-touch finisher in the world? It truly was a different world back in 2012. Since then, the Croatian striker has become a laughing stock after countless missed chances, fallen out of favour at Everton and been moved on to Hull City, where it is hoped that Steve Bruce will help him rediscover the deadliness that earned him admirers in the first place.
He had not scored in the league since last March when he joined Hull but the early signs are encouraging. His goal in the 2-0 win over 10-man Sunderland was a reminder of what he can do, Jelavic making a difficult header look easier than it was. Given the flight of the ball and his position, it demanded perfect technique and placement and he found the top corner with his effort.
More of that and Hull will survive. It may help Jelavic that he has the scampering Shane Long, who has scored twice in his first three games for Bruce’s side, next to him, with the Irishman’s pace and intelligent movement creating space for him. Hull might have had to part company with a fair chunk of cash for them, but the investment looks worth it so far. JS