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Dublin: 3 °C Saturday 24 March, 2018

Rafa returns to Liverpool, City close in on United title triumph and more Premier League talking points

Reigning champions Chelsea take on Man City, the likely heirs to their throne.

1. Rafa returns to Liverpool

BT Sport, Football, UEFA Champions League Final, 25th May 2005, Ataturk Stadium, Istanbul, AC Milan 3 v Liverpool 3, ( Liverpool won 3-2 on penalties), Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard (left) with manager Rafael Benitez celebrate with the trophy Rafa Benitez helped Liverpool win the Champions League in 2005. Source: Bob Thomas/Getty Images

RAFA BENITEZ IS back at the club where most believe he achieved his greatest triumph to date — Liverpool.

The Spanish boss was in charge as the Reds won the Champions League in improbable circumstances in 2005, coming from three goals down to defeat Milan on penalties.

Of course, it would be unfair to describe Benitez’s career since then as a disappointment. He subsequently won the FA Cup with Liverpool, as well as the Europa League with Chelsea and the Coppa Italia at Napoli, in addition to most recently guiding his current side Newcastle to glory in the Championship.

Yet there is a sense that Benitez’s stock has fallen in recent years, with disappointing spells at Inter and Real Madrid undoubtedly contributing to that feeling.

Newcastle are currently just two points off the Premier League relegation zone, and suffering the ignominy of the drop would be another unwanted blotch on the former Valencia coach’s CV.

While he has undoubtedly done well enough with limited resources at St James’ Park, there is a growing sense that the style of football Benitez favours itself has limitations.

English football this season has arguably looked as healthy as ever, and with the exception of Man United and to a lesser extent Chelsea, all the Premier League sides are still in the Champions League having employed an exciting, attractive brand of football.

Probably the last time English football was looking so healthy on the European stage was when Chelsea and Liverpool contested a 2007 Champions League semi-final, with the quality of the game memorably derided as “shit hanging from a stick” by ex-Real Madrid coach and World Cup winner Jorge Valdano.

The assessment was harsh — the game featured a number of world-class players close to the peak of their powers at the time, including Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Xabi Alonso.

Yet both teams certainly adopted a pragmatic brand of football, which was not especially pleasing on the eye — the tie ended 1-1 on aggregate, with the Reds ultimately triumphing 4-1 on penalties.

Such a game is in stark contrast to the brilliant attacking football that Liverpool, Tottenham and Manchester City have all consistently produced at the highest level this season.

The two managers in charge during that 2007 semi, Benitez and Jose Mourinho, continue to be perceived as cautious, defensive-minded coaches, whereas the innovative attacking styles spearheaded by Messrs Guardiola, Pochettino and Klopp have won plenty of acclaim in recent times.

In an era where there is so much competing for people’s attention, it has perhaps become more vital than ever for football to wow its spectators, even if adopting such methods are not necessarily always conducive to on-field success.

By sticking steadfastly to their overtly familiar routines, both Benitez and Mourinho are leaving themselves open to accusations of failing to move with the times.

United have a dreadful scoring record when it comes to playing against fellow ‘big six’ teams away from home, while the Magpies have registered a paltry 27 goals from 28 matches so far this season.

Of course, if Newcastle can avoid relegation and Man United earn a top-four finish and ideally a trophy to go along with that, the defensive approaches of both will be seen as justified to a degree.

However, even if their respective seasons end well, there remains deep uncertainty as to whether Mourinho and Benitez’s divisive methods will pay dividends in the long term.

2. City close in on United title triumph

Arsenal v Manchester City - Premier League Man City celebrate following their midweek defeat of Arsenal. Source: Mike Hewitt

There is a common misconception that Denis Law scored the goal that ‘relegated’ Man United in 1974 while the prolific Scot was lining out for Man City towards the end of his career.

This is not strictly true, because as explained in detail here, results elsewhere meant the Red Devils would have gone down even if they had won the match in question, meaning the ex-Man United legend’s strike against his former club was inconsequential in the grander scheme of things.

Still though, seeing a former great put a goal past them while wearing City’s colours will have been tough to stomach for United supporters regardless.

Throughout the ’90s and 00s though, the Old Trafford outfit enjoyed far better fortune than their neighbours, and were comfortably the most successful club in Manchester despite that early ’70s setback.

It wasn’t until when Sergio Aguero’s last-gasp goal on the final day of the 2011-12 season meant City pipped United to the Premier League title that the tide began to turn.

Now, United are surely further behind City than they have ever been, certainly at least since the start of the Premier League era.

Pep Guardiola’s team, indeed, have been considerably better than any other English side this season, as their 16-point lead at the top of the Premier League indicates.

And while it is now surely a matter of when rather than if City win the league, the nightmare scenario from a United fans’ perspective is the table toppers confirming their status as champions against them on 7 April.

The Etihad outfit need just four more wins to be guaranteed the title, and should neither side drop points between now and then, City will have a chance to celebrate their triumph in dramatic circumstances by beating their most bitter rivals.

Such an embarrassment would surely be up there with the Aguero goal and the Law strike as one of the most forgettable moments in the Red Devils’ history.

3. The race for the top four versus European commitments

Tottenham Hotspur v Rochdale - The Emirates FA Cup Fifth Round Replay Tottenham are among the sides in the hunt for a top-four spot. Source: Catherine Ivill

As it stands, just six points separate second-place Man United and fifth-place Chelsea.

Arsenal, meanwhile, are a full 10 points off fourth spot — their loss to City on Thursday means winning the Europa League is surely their only hope of playing Champions League football next season.

The Gunners, consequently, will be tempted to rest some of their top players for Sunday’s clash at Brighton, with an eye on a crucial first leg against Gennaro Gattuso’s rejuvenated AC Milan side on Thursday.

Arsene Wenger’s embattled team are not the only ones who will have half an eye on Europe this weekend. Tottenham will play their most important match of the season so far on Wednesday, as they host Juventus in the Champions League, with the sides having drawn 2-2 in the initial encounter in Turin.

Consequently, expect to see a few more peripheral members of Spurs’ squad getting a run out in Saturday’s clash at home to Huddersfield.

However, Liverpool and Man City have established 5-0 and 4-0 first-leg Champions League advantages respectively, so will have the luxury of being able to put a greater degree of focus on their domestic commitments.

Chelsea, who are not competing in Europe this week (they travel to face Barcelona on 14 March), will hope to take advantage of any slip-ups by their rivals, though in doing so will have to overcome the most formidable of obstacles in the form of Man City.

4. Burnley look set to complete a remarkable season

Burnley v Southampton - Premier League Burnley are just a win away from the all-important 40-point mark. Source: Mark Runnacles

While their form has tailed off to a degree in the second half of the season thanks in part to important players such as Ireland’s Robbie Brady suffering long-term injuries, it has nonetheless been a remarkable campaign for Burnley.

On their return to the top flight last season, they did just enough to survive, finishing 16th, six points ahead of relegated Hull.

Speaking ahead of this season getting underway, Irish defender Stephen Ward said the club would take a 17th-place finish if offered there and then.

Yet the Clarets have shown a marked improvement and exceeded expectations under the astute leadership of Sean Dyche since the start of the 2017-18 campaign.

A mean defensive record has been key — of all the teams in the division, only Spurs and the two Manchester clubs have conceded fewer goals, with the likes of Ward, Ben Mee, James Tarkowski and Kevin Long excelling on a regular basis.

And in Saturday’s early kick-off, they have a chance to all but secure survival for another year — a win at home to Everton would take them to the 40-point mark, which is generally considered the tally needed to be sure of avoiding the drop.

5. West Brom have 10 games to save themselves

West Bromwich Albion v Huddersfield Town - Premier League It has been a season to forget so far for West Brom. Source: Alex Morton

The outlook appears gloomy for West Brom. With 10 games remaining, the Baggies sit on just 20 points at the bottom of the table.

They are seven points off 17th-place Palace, who have improved significantly under Roy Hodgson after getting their campaign off to a disastrous start and promptly sacking Frank de Boer as head coach as a result.

Unlike Hodgson, at the Hawthorns, Alan Pardew has struggled to reverse the downward trend since taking over from Tony Pulis at the end of November.

In addition, what was meant to be a relaxing recent trip away to Barcelona last month has only added to their woes, with a number of senior players under investigation for allegedly stealing a taxi amid the club’s crisis, though the individuals in question are at least likely to avoid legal action following the incident.

But with the season approaching its climax, games are starting to approach ‘must-win’ territory for the beleaguered Baggies.

And especially on account of a tough end-of-season calendar that includes fixtures against Man United, Liverpool and Tottenham, it is looking crucial that they pick up points against a tough but beatable Watford outfit this weekend.

Upcoming Premier League fixtures (all games kick-off at 3pm unless stated otherwise)

Burnley v Everton (12.30)
Leicester City v Bournemouth
Southampton v Stoke City
Swansea City v West Ham United
Tottenham Hotspur v Huddersfield Town
Watford v West Brom
Liverpool v Newcastle United (17.30)


Brighton v Arsenal (13.30)
Manchester City v Chelsea (16.00)


Crystal Palace v Man United (20.00)

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