With the FA Cup quarter-finals this weekend, there are only four Premier League games scheduled – but there’s plenty riding on those fixtures.
From the title battle to the race for the top four to relegation, the four games this weekend will have plenty of ramifications in all the key flashpoints in the league.
Here’s a look at talking points heading into the weekend.
LIVERPOOL CAN STEAL A MARCH ON CITY
Ever since they coughed up the seven-point lead they once had on Manchester City, the talk about Liverpool is whether they’d be able to do a better job as chasers rather than leaders. Yet that equation could change as soon as Sunday with City playing in the FA Cup this weekend.
A trip to relegation-threatened Fulham is an ideal fixture when their title rivals aren’t playing a league game, with the chance to go back to the top of the table there for Liverpool. These are the kind of opportunities Liverpool just can’t let slip.
They may be on a high after their exploits in the Champions League, but they can’t afford a European hangover. Beat Fulham, and it’s City who will have to be playing catch-up again. Even though they’ll have a game in hand, that could change the psychology of the title race.
CHELSEA TO TAKE POLE POSITION IN TOP-FOUR RACE?
Like with Liverpool and their chance to overtake City, Chelsea have the chance to at least move level on points with fourth-placed Arsenal, and overtake Manchester United in the process, when they face Everton this weekend.
Arsenal have a goal difference advantage of five and have scored 10 more goals than Chelsea, so ending the weekend in fourth place is an unlikely outcome for the Blues, but there’s no doubt that this is an opportunity not to be missed.
Chelsea have struggled on the road this season, with five of their six league losses coming on their travels, including some truly shambolic results – the whopping 6-0 defeat to City and 4-0 loss to Bournemouth come to mind. But Everton, who blew a two-goal lead to Newcastle last week, have had struggles of their own. There’s a reason they’re down in 11th place, and they only have the 12th-best home record in the league, neither fact reflecting kindly on Marco Silva in his first season in charge.
Chelsea can’t afford to drop points, and though Goodison Park is never an easy place to travel, this is a winnable fixture.
CONFIDENT NEWCASTLE CAN MOVE BACK TOWARDS MID-TABLE RESPECTABILITY
When you’ve beaten Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, then come back from two goals down to win against Everton, suddenly the confidence will start flowing again.
This was looking like a doomed season early on for Newcastle, as it seemed even Rafa Benitez’s managerial chops might not be enough to help the club pull off a relegation-avoiding campaign for a second straight season. But a win against Bournemouth will take them to 37 points, which should be enough to ensure safety.
And safety may not be the only goal for Benitez. A win would also keep the gap to Leicester City at four points, or perhaps reduce it if the Foxes lose to Burnley. Leicester are in 10th, so a top half finish is still within the realms of possibility for Benitez’s team – and what an achievement that would be given where they were at the start of the season.
BURNLEY GETTING DRAGGED BACK INTO RELEGATION BATTLE
Burnley went on an impressive unbeaten run between December and early February to seemingly pull themselves out of the relegation battle. But last week’s loss to Liverpool was their third in a row, and now they’re only two points above the drop zone.
Cardiff City, occupying the third relegation spot, don’t play this weekend, so when Burnley take on Leicester there is the chance of taking that gap back up to five and giving themselves some breathing room, even if their relegation rivals will have a game in hand.
Sean Dyche’s team have been one of the full-good stories in the Premier League in recent seasons, and having made it to seventh last season no one would have expected them to be struggling like this, even with the added Europa League commitments in the first half of the season. This weekend is an excellent opportunity to get back on track.
WEST HAM STILL AIMING FOR BEST OF THE REST
Speaking of that seventh spot, it is still a realistic goal for West Ham, who are only five points behind Wolves. Though Leicester are only a point behind, and Everton and Bournemouth two, it does seem like a three-horse race between Wolves, West Ham, and Watford, given the inconsistent form of the other three sides.
Huddersfield at home is the perfect game for West Ham to make up some ground after last week’s shock loss to Cardiff City, and cut the gap while Wolves and Watford are preoccupied with the FA Cup. If Manuel Pellegrini’s side can get that result out of their system, they’ll know the Terriers, all but relegated already, are there for the taking.
It would also be a good game for Marko Arnautovic to get back into form. The Austrian hasn’t scored in six straight games, having started the season on a tear. At some point, the disappointment of not getting a desired move to the Chinese Super League has to be put aside so he can get back to showing why a team is ready to pay that much money for him in the first place.
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