It’s a big, damn weekend for all the players heading into the World Cup. Before then there is business for Newcastle, Chelsea, Everton and Nathan Jones to attend to…
Match to watch – Newcastle v Chelsea
Back in June, the FA reportedly asked the Premier League not to schedule any meetings between the big six teams in the final, perilous weekend before the World Cup. The fixture computer had to insert a couple into the schedule last weekend instead. But Prem will sign off with one Big Seven meeting on saturday night…
That’s the status Newcastle, with their Saudi riches, are seeking, while Eddie Howe wants to go even further even faster. Regardless of how things go against Chelsea at St James’ Park, they will spend the next six weeks in the Champions League places.
Newcastle have moved above everyone else’s City and Arsenal after a ten-game unbeaten run, including five straight wins in the Premier League. At home they are unbeaten in their last eight and have won their last three.
Chelsea will need a break after going to St James’ Park, especially after losing at home to Arsenal and going out of the Carabao Cup to City this week. It has been a miserable four weeks since their last Premier League win, since then they have gone four games without a win, drawing two and suffering deflating defeats to Brighton and the Gunners.
All this has raised questions about Graham Potter and the club’s new ownership. The transition – in the boardroom and on the bench, from two hugely revered and successful characters – was never going to be peaceful, but Chelsea could spend the next six weeks stuck in ninth or 10th place if they are handed the Toon.
The Premier League tried its best to enter the break with a low-key weekend, but coincidentally, we’ve been treated to one of the most exciting games of the season so far.
Team to watch – Everton
The midweek defeat to Bournemouth was arguably the worst performance of not only Lampard’s reign, but the Farhad Moshiri era. After a 2-0 home defeat against Leicester, the mood at Goodison risks turning again.
It could be a long, miserable six weeks for the Toffees if they go back to Bournemouth and put in an equally inept display. Lampard sought to avert that by pinning his Carabao Cup exit squarely on the players, some of whom blew a rare opportunity to prove their worth to the Everton manager. Or anyone else who might have been tempted in January.
In fairness, his team selection offered Lampard some protection which he gladly took. But frustration with the travel allowance, many of whom had the cost of their trips and tickets covered by the club but were still entitled to feel shortchanged, bubbled over before Bournemouth. Against Leicester on Saturday, the Toffees were very much second best.
Everton have been widely praised for rebuilding many of the bridges they burned last season when they were lucky to avoid relegation. Some shrewd business over the summer, particularly in the center of their defense and midfield, had put Lampard on a much firmer footing. But there is still a possibility they could break for the WC back into the bottom three. The best they could hope for if they lose again at Bournemouth is 17th. Much of the talk of progress would be moot whether they will spend the next six weeks in or wave above the relegation zone.
Manager to watch – Nathan Jones
Julen Lopetegui was appointed earlier Southampton pounced on Jones but Wolves had the sense to give the Spaniard a six-week World Cup break to sort out his new squad before exposing him to the Premier League. Saints cannot afford to be so patient. Jones’ first task after replacing the alpine Klopp is a trip to meet the real one.
Saints travel to Liverpool on Saturday as they languish in the relegation zone in the wake of last Sunday’s hump at the hands of Newcastle. The Magpies didn’t need to play well to beat Saints, who were little better as they edged past Sheffield Wednesday in the Carabao Cup on Wednesday night.
Jones was in the stands at St Mary’s to see for himself the scale of the task ahead. His priorities, in no particular order: tease some strength from his forward line; establish a fixed form and structure; and lift the mood around the saints.
The ex-Luton boss has two training sessions ahead of Liverpool. Good luck.
Jones is not the first new manager this season to start his regime at Anfield. Roberto Di Zerbi took Brighton to face Liverpool in their first game and the Seagulls should have won. But the Brighton and Saints jobs are two completely different propositions. It’s hardly a must for Southampton and Jones, but if not points to lift them out of the bottom three, Saints simply need to take some positive results from their last game to see them through a barren six weeks.
Players to watch – All internationals going to the WC
This is arguably the weirdest weekend of a mental season. A mid-season break for the World Cup is worrying for all of us. For the players selected to represent their nations on the biggest stage of all, this matchday is an absolute headf*ck.
Too many players have seen their dreams shattered by a terribly timed twang, twist or bang. Every major tournament is missing big stars due to injury, but this one is different. There is usually a month or so between the end of the club season and the start of the World Cup, enough time to recover from the usual knocks. Before the kick-off in Qatar, there is not even a week left for some. Any stings this weekend will have players fearing the worst.
It’s the clubs who cough up their huge wages and until Saturday or Sunday night that’s where the players’ loyalties lie. But would you really blame someone heading to Qatar if they were looking for a reason to ditch a last shift that could derail their hopes and dreams?
Win, lose or draw, there will be plenty of players this weekend who are just relieved to get through games unscathed. As fans, we want everything on the field, and most will still thunder into the 50/50 with little regard for the consequences. But this weekend we should at least try to put ourselves in their shoes, especially the likes of James Maddison, Marcus Rashford, Callum Wilson or William Saliba and many others who have grafted their nuts off to make the final cut, for a relatively insignificant 90 minutes which may be the end of life’s ambition.
EFL Match to Watch – Burnley v Blackburn
A Lancashire derby between the top two? It’s just the biggest game of the Championship season so far…
Vincent Kompany doesn’t even try to play it cool. “Winning is more important in this game,” said the Burnley boss, embracing the rivalry, the importance of which has apparently been drilled into him ever since he arrived at Turf Moor this summer.
The Clarets go into contention with Rovers by just two points in their first meeting in five years after losing their five-point cushion at the summit last week in a clash of equal importance, in terms of importance if not to supporters, when they pounced on Sheffield United . Burnley simply couldn’t cope with the Blades’ bombardment in the second half. To be so easily beaten this weekend will not be tolerated by the locals.
European Match to Watch – Atalanta v Inter
Of course, it’s not just Premier League players with a final shift to endure before the World Cup. La Liga has given its teams a few extra days off, but across Europe the other major leagues are squeezing in one more matchday before their players disappear to Qatar.
In Italy, their domestic stars are headed for a winter break rather than the World Cup after the Azzurri failed to qualify. Which is perhaps part of the reason why their final weekend looks more exciting than other leagues.
Six of the top nine face each other, with a top-three spot up for grabs when Inter travel to Atalanta. The hosts have endured a tough week after losing to Napoli and Lecce to slip from second to fifth, below their fourth-placed visitors.
Roma have had equally miserable days, losing the derby against Lazio before conceding late to a draw with Sassuolo, after which Jose Mourinho threw one of his players under the bus. They meet on Sunday, before Serie A kicks off the new year with Juventus against Lazio.
Read more: World Cup squad: latest news on who’s going to Qatar, and when we’ll find out who won’t…
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