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Will Man United spring Zlatan surprise and more Premier League talking points

Plus, can Everton stop Liverpool’s ‘Fab Four’?

1. Will Man United spring Zlatan surprise?

Manchester United Press Conference and Training Session - AON Training Complex Source: Martin Rickett

THIS WEEKEND, THE Premier League’s two most prolific teams will meet, as Man United bid to reduce City’s eight-point lead at the top of the table.

Despite managing an impressive 35 goals, however, Jose Mourinho’s team have at times been accused of being overly negative and ‘parking the bus’.

When up against the top teams so far this season — Liverpool, Tottenham, Chelsea and Arsenal — on the balance of play, United have arguably been second best on each occasion. And this Sunday’s game against Pep Guardiola’s side is unlikely to produce a contrasting outcome.

Yet more significantly, they have won two and lost only one of the matches in question.

Last season, when they tried to play in an open fashion against City at Old Trafford, they were beaten 2-1 — a scoreline that did not fully reflect the visitors’ dominance that day.

In the games where they have failed to beat the big sides — Liverpool and Chelsea — while defending quite well, they looked decidedly uninspired and devoid of spark in attack.

Since returning from a long-term anterior cruciate ligament injury, Zlatan Ibrahimovic has made just four appearances from the bench.

Romelu Lukaku has scored just twice in his last 13 appearances in all competitions, as the Red Devils prepare for a game where they are likely to create fewer chances and see much less of the ball than usual.

With that in mind, could Mourinho be willing to sacrifice the pace of Lukaku or one of United’s other speedy attackers in exchange for the guile and finishing prowess of the Swede?

It could well be the type of unexpected decision needed to throw a rampant City off their game.

2. Can Everton stop Liverpool’s ‘Fab Four’?

Liverpool v Spartak Moscow - UEFA Champions League - Group E - Anfield Source: Martin Rickett

Philippe Coutinho, Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah have been branded the ‘Fab Four’ on the back of recent performances.

Jurgen Klopp feels the label is disrespectful to other players, but there is no doubt that Liverpool’s attack has been their strong point this season.

Only the Manchester clubs have scored more in the Premier League this season, while the Anfield outfit registered 21 goals in the Champions League group stages — more than any other England side has ever managed in that part of the competition.

With six goals in Europe’s top club competition, only Cristiano Ronaldo has managed more goals than Roberto Firmino, while Philippe Coutinho and Mo Salah are both joint-third in the current standings with five goals apiece. The latter is also the Premier League’s leading scorer, with 12 goals leaving him two ahead of Tottenham’s Harry Kane.

This weekend, they are rightly considered favourites against an Everton side that have looked much improved of late, but who still trail the Reds by 11 points in the table.

“I played him [Allardyce] at three different clubs and I’m only two years here,” Klopp told reporters in his pre-match press conference. “At each club, he did the job. He’s very successful; we know what we’ll get but that doesn’t make it easier.”

It is just over a month since Liverpool were beaten 4-1 against Tottenham and a couple of weeks since their second-half capitulation in Sevilla, so Sam Allardyce will know that Jurgen Klopp’s side are far from infallible.

Whether they can expose these flaws while preventing them from running amok down the other end, however, is another matter.

3. Moyes aims for first win as West Ham boss

Manchester City v West Ham United - Premier League - Etihad Stadium Source: EMPICS Sport

It would be fair to say David Moyes has experienced a baptism of fire as West Ham boss.

Since the Scot took over, the Hammers’ results have failed to improve significantly — they have picked up just one point from a possible 12 in the Premier League.

Nevertheless, following the embarrassing recent 4-0 defeat by Everton, there were signs of hope last weekend, where a committed display saw West Ham take the lead and push Man City close before ultimately losing 2-1.

With 0 wins and five losses in their last eight games, the Hammers have been on a woeful run for some time — and it now seems certain that they are in store for a relegation fight, with the team currently three points from safety.

In Saturday’s early kick-off at London Stadium, they face formidable opponents in the form of Chelsea — in their last 22 Premier League games against their London rivals, West Ham have picked up only two wins and suffered 16 losses.

So the outlook appears fairly grim from the home side’s perspective, but if they can reproduce the type of resilient performance they managed at City, they still have the potential to cause the Blues plenty of problems.

4. Out-of-sorts Alli faces favourite opponents

Tottenham Hotspur v West Bromwich Albion - Premier League - Wembley Stadium Source: Tim Goode

By Dele Alli’s high standards, it has been a disappointing season so far.

The 21-year-old Tottenham and England star has managed just three goals in 14 Premier League appearances so far.

That said, he does tend to be a slow starter — he had the same number at this stage last year, but went on to enjoy a far better second half of the season, finishing with 23 goals in all competitions, 18 of which came in the top flight.

Another marked improvement is needed from Alli if Tottenham are to halt their flailing form domestically.

While they qualified from the Champions League group stages with more points than any other side in Europe, Spurs find themselves in an underwhelming sixth place in the Premier League.

If Mauricio Pochettino’s men fail to beat Stoke this weekend, it will be the first time they endured a run of five winless league games since March 2012.

Pochettino has defended his side, pointing out that they are just two points worse off than at this stage last year, but such remarks will do little to quell accusations that the North Londoners possess a ‘small-club mentality’ where stuttering form is portrayed as being acceptable.

Nevertheless, this difficult period is surely the perfect time for them to play Stoke — the opponents they have beaten 4-0 in the sides’ last three Premier League meetings.

5. Another dreaded season of ‘transition’ beckons for Arsenal

Britain Soccer Premier League Source: Kirsty Wigglesworth

Arsenal fans are lucky in one sense — since Arsene Wenger took charge more than two decades ago, their style of football has made them consistently among the most attractive sides to watch in Europe.

Yet for the overwhelming majority of Wenger’s reign now, their beautiful, free-flowing play has been undermined by brittleness at the back.

The Gunners played most of the football and were the better team for 79 minutes against Man United last weekend.

Yet the Red Devils didn’t need to be particularly good going forward, as individual errors ensured Arsenal were their own worst enemies for the umpteenth time on Saturday at the Emirates.

The clash was another stark example of a recurring theme of the Wenger era — squandered potential.

Since the famous ‘Invincibles’ campaign of 2003-04, they have perennially hit a ceiling at certain points of various seasons.

For every encouraging 2-0 win over a decent side such as Spurs, there is bound to be another costly, error-ridden defeat around the corner as was seen last week.

“At the moment we have different worries than the title,” Wenger said in a pre-match press conference. “After such disappointment [losing to Manchester United], you have to think about winning the next game.

“We are too far from the title at the moment to speak about the title. It’s not realistic.

“Let’s try to win our next game and over a longer distance see if we can come back.”

You get the feeling you could apply those quotes to any season post-2004 and therefore, as attractive as Arsenal are to watch in one sense, there is a dreaded predictability about their campaigns, which is becoming more pronounced with each passing year.

In the 13 seasons since the title triumph, they have finished in the top four 12 times and second twice, but only twice in that time have they ended up less than 10 points behind the champions (07-08 and 13-14), and this campaign is unlikely to be another exception.

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

Saturday

West Ham v Chelsea (12.30pm)
Burnley v Watford
Crystal Palace v Bournemouth
Huddersfield v Brighton
Swansea v West Brom
Tottenham v Stoke
Newcastle v Leicester (5.30pm)

Sunday

Southampton v Arsenal (12pm)
Liverpool v Everton (2.15pm)
Man United v Man City (4.30pm)

The42 has just published its first book, Behind The Lines, a collection of some of the year’s best sports stories. Pick up your copy in Eason’s, or order it here today (€10):

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