Premier League talking points: Manchester derby, Leicester’s title challenge and Tammy Abraham
Our writers look ahead to the weekend’s action as the Manchester derby takes centre stage and Liverpool travel to Bournemouth looking to maintain their historic winning run
Will United raise their game for Manchester derby?
Why do a team as mediocre as Manchester United have such a good record against the very best? Wednesday’s win over Tottenham was their eighth against ‘top-seven’ opposition under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, while they have suffered only two defeats to the same opponents in that time. This should concern Manchester City, who welcome Solskjaer’s side to the Etihad for Saturday’s 179th Manchester derby and need to embark on a long, winning run. Pep Guardiola will take hope from Tuesday’s win away at Burnley, when the Premier League champions looked to be back at their stirring best. But United appear to know how to frustrate elite opposition, if nothing else. MC
Abraham gives Lampard different dynamic
Will Frank Lampard persist with the strategy to involve Tammy Abraham heavily? It would be wise based on Wednesday’s evidence in what is a key test at Everton. More direct, overloading the box with crosses, Abraham offers a different dynamic. With 11 Premier League goals – and also the top scorer for non-penalty goals – Abraham is flourishing and emerging as a leader. A true character, able to rally a dispirited Mason Mount before his cracking winner against Villa, Chelsea will have to lean on Abraham on the road once more. A sketchy history at Goodison, the Toffees usually play the Blues hard, but after having their energy sapped by their bitter rivals Liverpool midweek, it is the perfect opportunity for the Londoners to cement their top four credentials ahead of the busy and unpredictable festive period. Survive up to that point and it is an excellent indicator of the floor to this team’s potential for the rest of the way, given their youth and the wildcard to have their transfer ban lifted. JR
Liverpool can expect goals galore at Bournemouth
Certainties in football are scant, but Liverpool will have the comfort of one of them at Bournemouth: goals. Jurgen Klopp’s side have won their last four Premier League fixtures against the south coast club by an aggregate score of 14-0, which has included two 4-0 victories at the Vitality Stadium. Saturday’s hosts are welcome opponents for Mohamed Salah, expected to return to Liverpool’s starting XI after being rested in the Merseyside derby, who is suffering a drought by his standards. The Egyptian last scored in the win over Manchester City on November 10, but possesses a lethal record against Bournemouth, netting in all four of his league meetings with them. Eddie Howe’s charges are the only team Salah enjoys a 100 per cent record against in the division. MR
Wolves hunting top-four place
Wolves are quietly on a roll, unbeaten since mid-September and finally turning draws into victories. The 2-0 win over West Ham in midweek sent them up to fifth – forget Manchester United, Tottenham and Arsenal, it is Wolves who are on the hunt for a top-four place. But their Achilles heel under Nuno Espirito Santo has always been their ability to pick apart the smaller teams in the Premier League. This meeting against Graham Potter's dangerous Brighton side will go some way to showing whether Nuno's found a cure. LO
Leicester tip-toe towards title challenge
They can’t, can they? Realistically, it’s a gentle but firm no. Eight points adrift of Liverpool, any chance of Leicester repeating the historic title success of 2016 is unlikely at best. But the Foxes have shown they know how to deal in the improbable. And on account of their recent displays, it looks like they’re once again shaking up the established order. The side have notched up seven wins on the bounce, and now take on Aston Villa in search of an eighth.
With Jamie Vardy firing on all fronts – he’s scored in all seven of those matches – there’s a strange sense of deja vu hanging about the club. But under Brendan Rodgers, they’re looking a far more polished and effective outfit this time around. From the assured backline to the attacking potency of the midfield unit, Leicester are the real deal. They’ll need to tread carefully against Villa but certainly have the talent at their disposal to secure three more points. From what we’ve seen so far, it’d be unwise to dismiss this form as fleeting – the Foxes are here to stay. SL
Hasenhuttl can buy himself more time
As they headed into the international break, the mood at St Mary’s was one of merciful relief. A break, at last, from the snowballing loss of form that's left the club teetering in a relegation battle and Ralph Hasenhuttl’s tenure under scrutiny. The turnaround since, though, has been a remarkable show of defiance. Albeit against a capsized Arsenal, the Saints were desperately unlucky not to leave the Emirates with three points and vital wins against fellow strugglers Watford and Norwich City have followed. This was the last stretch given to Hasenhuttl to save his job and a victory against Newcastle would certainly cement that safety net in place. TK
Which of Tottenham's new boys does Mourinho turn to first?
Tanguy Ndombele? Giovani Lo Celso? Or Ryan Sessegnon?
Spurs spent big this summer, but new manager José Mourinho has so far proved unwilling to integrate any of the club’s new signings, instead preferring to stick with the familiar faces that first flourished and then floundered under Mauricio Pochettino. But after the club’s uninspiring loss to Manchester United, there is a feeling that Mourinho needs to mix things up.
The defeat at Old Trafford proved once and for all that Moussa Sissoko and Harry Winks are not dynamic or disciplined enough to play in a midfield two together. So does Mourinho drop one to include Ndombele? Or does he instead recall Eric Dier?
Further forward, Lucas Moura’s run in the starting XI may now come to an end after a lethargic midweek display. That would appear to create an opportunity for Lo Celso, or will Mourinho instead shuffle around his front four to include Christian Eriksen? Mourinho has a number of selection issues to make and it would appear that now is the time for him to turn to the new boys. LB
Norwich's resurgence needs new flight
Norwich's resurgence had almost taken flight before Southampton stole their sting on Wednesday night. Daniel Farke's side had recovered from a tailspin that took force ever since upsetting Manchester City in September and then thudded violently to ground in an abysmal defeat by Watford.
Yet Norwich returned galvanised and stubbornly sticking to Daniel Farke's attractive vein of football. An impressive victory against Everton was followed by last weekend's 2-2 draw with Arsenal, where confidence surged down the wings and left Shkodran Mustafi stumbling. How spiralling the loss at St Mary's will prove to be remains to be seen, but already that renewed burst of confidence feels as though it's been sapped away. They remain four points clear of safety and urgently in need of consistency, before the next crash to earth ultimately takes them down a division. TK
Watford cannot afford to let Zaha wreak havoc
Watford are now seven points from safety, staring relegation in the face, and already it feels like they cannot afford to lose a game like this, at home against a side many predicted would finish below them this season. That will certainly not be the case now with Roy Hodgson's Eagles soaring high in the top half of the league, and give Palace's recent resurgence it could scarcely be a worse time to play them. Finding a way to smother Wilfried Zaha must be the Hornets' top priority. LO
Pellegrini's fire can wreck Ljungberg's homecoming
So - corner turned or false dawn? Perhaps you could ask that question to both sides on Monday, but it feels more relevant to West Ham.
After all, Arsenal have replaced their manager while the Hammers, for the time being at least, are holding firm. Manuel Pellegrini was supposed to be a dead man walking going into the last fixture against Chelsea, but the unlikeliest of 1-0 wins has him, well, more or less in the same position? Perhaps they would have pulled the plug on the Chilean had the result been different, but it’s not for nothing that the Hammers kept a clean sheet and kept grafting till the end. As we’ve seen already this season, if the players don’t want to play for a manager, they won’t.
The hosts won this fixture last season amid a string of grim results and, though they didn’t turn up against Tottenham a few weeks ago, they do love turning over a London rival, especially as underdogs.
The Gunners’ questionable away form in the capital reads two wins from 12 which doesn’t really mean too much when you break it down. Nevertheless, a Monday night scrap in east London doesn’t scream Arsenal. But who knows what Freddie Ljungberg – a former Hammer no less (yeah, us neither) – has in store… VE