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Dublin: 2°C Friday 26 February 2021

5 talking points ahead of the Stephen's Day Premier League action

Can United maintain their phenomenal record, will Balotelli come good and more questions.

Liverpool's Mario Balotelli is set to return from suspension.
Liverpool's Mario Balotelli is set to return from suspension.

1. Will there be much ‘19th century football’ on show at Stamford Bridge?

LOVE OR HATE Sam Allardyce, there is no doubt that he has worked miracles in turning West Ham from relegation contenders last year to top-four outsiders this term.

The Hammers sit just one point behind Man United in fourth, but face surely their biggest challenge yet in the form of Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea.

The Blues will be seeking revenge after West Ham put a dent in their title bid last year, as they earned a hard-fought 0-0 draw at Stamford Bridge, with Mourinho subsequently describing the visitors’ approach as “football from the 19th century”.

Yet a repeat result of the last time the sides met is unlikely, as Chelsea have added considerable firepower to their lineup since then, in the form of the irrepressible Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas.

2. Can Man United maintain their phenomenal Stephen’s Day record?

The Red Devils have only ever lost once on Stephen’s Day since the Premier League began, in addition to winning their last 10 matches on the trot on 26 December.

They face a Newcastle side in less-than-buoyant form, having lost the all-important Tyne & Wear derby at home to rivals Sunderland last weekend.

The hosts will thus be considerable favourites going into the game, but then the same was the case last season, when Newcastle picked up their first league win at Old Trafford for almost 42 years.

Moreover, United have key players such as Daley Blind missing and they were below par in their last match when they could only manage a draw with Aston Villa, while Alan Pardew has made a habit of defying the critics this season.

3. Will Liverpool back up Rodgers’ talk?

Liverpool may have picked up just one point from their last two Premier League games against Man United and Arsenal, but there have nevertheless been recent signs that the Anfield club are improving slowly but surely.

Brendan Rodgers is certainly confident they can get better, with the manager still suggesting during the week that a top-four finish is a viable aim.

However, they face what could be a stiff test against a Burnley side that have caused Man United among others problems at Turf Moor this season.

A big issue for the Reds in recent matches has been — in stark contrast with last season — their failure to convert goalscoring opportunities. And whether the returning Mario Balotelli can finally come good and resolve that problem remains to be seen, though it is looking less likely with each passing game.

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4. Can striker-less Man City continue to persevere?

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Manchester City v Crystal Palace - Etihad Stadium Source: PA Wire/Press Association Images

(David Silva scored twice in Man City’s win over Crystal Palace last weekend)

Despite being without captain Vincent Kompany and having to play James Milner and later David Silva in the most advanced role, Man City beat Crystal Palace with relative ease last weekend.

Against West Brom at the Hawthorns, they will also have to cope without Sergio Aguero, Edin Dzeko and Stevan Jovetic, so it will interesting to see whether they can continue to manage so well without a recognised striker.

That said, the odds are certainly in the visitors’ favour — the Baggies have failed to win their last 15 games against City, and they are currently 22 points behind them in 15th.

Furthermore, West Brom’s home form has been especially poor in recent times, having won just four games on their own turf in 2014.

5. Will Arsenal or Tottenham step up?

Even with the season still relatively young, a number of assumptions have been already made.

One is that Chelsea, Man City and — to a lesser extent — Man United are likely to finish in the top four.

However, the identity of the fourth-placed team remains less clear cut — some critics insist that Southampton and West Ham are legitimate contenders, but most expect them to fall down the pecking order ultimately, which would leave Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool (if Brendan Rodgers’ aforementioned optimism is to be believed) to fight it out.

The notoriously intense, exhausting Christmas period often tends to separate the men from the boys in the Premier League, and consequently, the next few weeks should give us a greater insight into Spurs and Arsenal’s Champions League chances, starting on Friday against Leicester and QPR respectively.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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