1. Liverpool in more comfortable territory?
IT SAYS IT all about the two sides respective fortunes of late that, as 2016 ended, Liverpool were second in the league, seven points ahead of fifth-place Tottenham.
Now, just over a month later, the situation has effectively been reversed — Spurs are second, four points ahead of Liverpool, who have dropped down to fifth, after a dire couple of weeks.
Yet despite the recent turn of events, Tottenham are unlikely to be going into this weekend’s evening kick-off at Anfield in an overly confident mood.
Most of the Reds’ troubles this season have come against the weaker sides — their record against the top six is actually superior to the rest (see above pic). However, Jurgen Klopp’s side have dropped more points against the bottom 14 than any of their other top-four rivals.
Tottenham may have a relatively decent record against the other members of the big six as well, but they have struggled in particular away from home against top sides.
Indeed, they have yet to win a match on the road against a top-four rival, drawing with Man City and Arsenal, while losing to Man United and Chelsea.
Consequently, despite Spurs and Liverpool’s markedly contrasting form since the turn of the year, this weekend’s match is anything but a foregone conclusion.
2. Can Hull pull off another shock?
Few people would have given Hull much of a chance prior to their last two fixtures.
Particularly in light of an embarrassing 4-1 FA Cup loss to Championship side Fulham, the Tigers appeared doomed to failure ahead of matches with Manchester United and Liverpool.
But it’s a testament to the impact of recently appointed manager, Marco Silva, that his relegation-threatened side emerged with four points and plenty of plaudits owing to their intelligent tactics and superb defensive organisation.
It’s the type of game where Arsenal will probably be criticised regardless of the outcome — if they triumph 4-0, naysayers will still complain that they ‘only do it against the small teams,’ such is sense of pessimism enveloping the Gunners currently.
Yet this game certainly looks like a potential banana skin for Arsene Wenger’s side. The upcoming midweek Champions League match with Bayern Munich means the manager will be tempted to rest key players, while the renewed optimism within the Hull camp is a further reason for Gunners fans to be nervous.
3. Will Man United continue their remarkable unbeaten run?
It has been a far from perfect season for Manchester United and Jose Mourinho.
Given their status and the amount the club have spent in recent times, that currently they find themselves in sixth place undoubtedly constitutes underachievement to a degree.
Yet there are certainly positives for the Old Trafford club. While they trail league leaders Chelsea by 14 points and consequently look all but out of the title race, a top-four spot continues to seem realistic — just five points separates Mourinho’s men and second-place Tottenham in one of the most competitive seasons in recent memory.
Moreover, United are arguably unlucky not to be higher. The Red Devils’ big problem has been draws — of the other Premier League teams, only Middlesbrough have as many (nine) this season, and a number of those were games they really should have won (home fixtures against Burnley, Arsenal and West Ham spring to mind).
On the other hand, however, they have lost just three matches since the campaign began — only Tottenham have a superior record in this regard.
In addition, last weekend’s win over Leicester means they have now gone 15 games without a loss, so they hold the longest unbeaten run of all the teams in Europe’s top five leagues, while the club themselves have not bettered this record since the retirement of Alex Ferguson. Their last loss, a 4-0 defeat by Chelsea on 23 October, consequently seems a distant memory.
The trend is expected to continue as they face Watford on Saturday, particularly as the Hornets have never won at Old Trafford in the league, although they did inflict a rare defeat on Mourinho’s side in the reverse fixture back in September.
4. Chelsea face tricky test
A win for Chelsea in their forthcoming clash is unlikely to come as easily as it often has this season in the Premier League.
They play Burnley, who have a superb home record. Sean Dyche’s side have won nine and lost just three of their 13 Premier League matches at Turf Moor this season — not bad at all for a newly promoted team.
During this impressive run, the Clarets have taken points off some good sides, most notably when they beat Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool 2-0 back in August.
That said, Swansea are the only side outside the top six that have managed to avoid a loss against Antonio Conte’s men, as they drew 2-2 with the Blues last September.
Burnley will also be attempting to pull off an unlikely victory without Ireland midfielder Jeff Hendrick, following his sending off against Watford last week.
5. Can Gabriel Jesus maintain high standards?
Gabriel Jesus’ impact in the Premier League so far has been nothing short of sensational.
It takes a particularly special 19-year-old to displace Sergio Aguero in one of the best sides in Europe, but the Brazilian starlet has proven to be just that.
He has three goals in two league starts and was unlucky not to have a fourth as an effort against Tottenham was adjudged to be marginally offside, with the youngster only just having been introduced.
Yet the challenge now will be to sustain these early positive signs — after all, it is far from the first time that a talented youngster has had an immediate impact in the Premier League.
Last season, for instance, both Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial looked like superstars in the making initially, but both have seen their form dip since then and neither are guaranteed a spot in United first XI currently.
Of course, Jesus will be well aware he can scarcely afford to let standards slip. He is at one of the richest clubs in the world who won’t hesitate to sign a replacement at the slightest sign of weakness or uncertainty.
Against Bournemouth on Monday, all eyes will be again on the prodigious teenager from Sao Paulo. Whether he can cope with this continual pressure remains to be seen.
Premier League matches this weekend (all-kick offs 3pm unless stated otherwise)
Arsenal v Hull City (12.30)
Man United v Watford
Middlesbrough v Everton
Stoke v Crystal Palace
Sunderland v Southampton
West Ham v West Brom
Liverpool v Tottenham (17.30)
Burnley v Chelsea (13.30)
Swansea v Leicester (16.00)
Bournemouth v Man City (20.00)
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