Farke faces defensive dilemma for Liverpool, Forest need their best XI, Chelsea’s women eye treble and a six-pointer in Austria.
1) Forest need to be back to full-strength at the Hawthorns
Leeds are falling apart. Maybe. But here’s the thing: anyone who beats them ends up falling apart too. None of the eight teams who have got the better of Marcelo Bielsa’s men in Championship this season have won their next match – seven of them have lost it. Nottingham Forest were the latest to find that beating Bielsa’s side takes a heavy toll, as on the back of last weekend’s 2-0 win at the City Ground, they flopped to a home defeat by Charlton. But they are still only two points off the automatic promotion places and could foil West Brom’s attempt to pull away at the top again by winning at the Hawthorns on Saturday. To do that, Sabri Lamouchi would be well advised to reverse the changes he made for the Charlton game and deploy the lineup that beat Leeds, assuming Lewis Grabban, Samba Sow and Sammy Ameobi have overcome the knee problems that forced them to miss mid-week. PD
- West Bromwich Albion v Nottingham Forest: Saturday, 12.30pm (all times GMT)
2) Farke to risk a back three against Liverpool?
Ben Godfrey played every minute of Norwich’s first 17 league games at centre-back, before sustaining a relatively minor knee ligament injury against Leicester in December. He missed five games, and the entire festive schedule, but on returning to fitness was thrown straight back into the starting XI alongside Christoph Zimmermann for the club’s last home fixture, the 1-0 win gainst Bournemouth, whereupon he was promptly sent off and forced to sit out another two matches. The last of those, a goalless draw at Newcastle, featured an assured defensive display from a rearguard in which Zimmerman was paired with Grant Hanley, and the team’s only clean sheet all season that didn’t come against Bournemouth. Daniel Farke must therefore decide whether to bring back the 22-year-old Godfrey, stick with the more experienced Hanley, or perhaps play all of them at the same time. Farke did experiment with a back three in pre-season but last used it in a competitive game nearly two years ago, and if there’s any opponent who will ruthlessly expose any defensive uncertainty it is Liverpool. SB
- Norwich City v Liverpool: Saturday, 5.30pm
3) Salzburg face stiffest test in title six-pointer
The Austrian Bundesliga resumes after its winter break on Friday night with an absolute cracker, pitting first against second in what could come to be seen as a premature title decider. Should Lask be defeated at RB Salzburg they would be five points and a good chunk of goal difference behind, and stuck chasing a side that have not lost in the league all season; should they win they would lead by a point, and the race is on. They have done well to stay within touching distance of a fearsome Salzburg side who have scored 29 more goals than their closest domestic rivals in only 18 matches, but while Lask have the benefit of consistency the leaders have lost Erling Braut Haaland (to Dortmund), Takumi Minamino (Liverpool) and the centre-back Marin Pongracic (Wolfsburg) since their last league game and this could be the ideal time to face them. With any luck it will be as dramatic as the teams’ first meeting of the season in September, when Lask roared into a two-goal lead, Petar Filipovic was sent off with quarter of an hour to play and Patson Daka scored his second of the game to equalise in the last minute. SB
- RB Salzburg v Lask: Friday, 6pm
4) Can Arteta get Arsenal’s attack firing?
Mikel Arteta has made the point more than once that, in a hectic first six weeks at Arsenal, there was little time to get anything bar the simplest of messages across to his players. He did a good job of that, even if five draws from seven league games denote little more than a steadying of the ship, but a fortnight let loose on such an underperforming squad should have allowed them to take a few more steps forward. Arsenal spent four days on the training pitch in Dubai during that time and the noises that have emerged from Arteta and his players are, albeit perhaps predictably, uniformly positive. “We are improving every day,” Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang said. Now they need to show it against a Newcastle side that will, if little else, be well drilled. Arteta believes a good run can still propel them towards the Champions League spots but that will be a short-lived hope if home assignments such as this cannot be ticked off without fuss. Having calmed Arsenal’s defence down, the logical next step is for Arteta to get their attackers firing: the extent of any improvement on Sunday may well reveal whether they can hope to achieve anything of note over the next three months. NA
- Arsenal v Newcastle United: Sunday, 4.30pm
5) Grealish threat gives Mourinho plenty to ponder
Only Norwich City have won fewer away games than Tottenham in the Premier League this season, so Aston Villa, who have won their last two home matches thanks to last-gasp goals, will fancy their chances of thrilling the locals at Villa Park again on Sunday. Jack Grealish will inevitably be instrumental in much of what the hosts do well and the outcome of this match could hinge on the duel between the most fouled player in the league and Serge Aurier, who has lots of qualities but is not renowned for his composure. Grealish is sure to try to use his skills to taunt the full-back if he plays, which is why, with the fit-again Ben Davies now an option at left-back, José Mourinho may choose to play Japhet Tanganga at right-back instead. PD
- Aston Villa v Tottenham Hotspur: Sunday, 2pm
6) Are Liverpool powerless to halt Chelsea’s women?
Can anything stop Chelsea’s women storming to a domestic treble? Their form since the turn of the year has been sensational, eight games in three competitions bringing eight wins and 31 goals; they already have a WSL Cup final against Arsenal to savour in two weeks’ time and it feels as if Emma Hayes’s painstaking work to amass a squad with formidable depth is bearing fruit. So what hope do relegation battlers Liverpool have when they visit Kingsmeadow on Sunday? They will surely take heart from the 1-1 draw they ground out when Chelsea visited them in the league two months ago, which was a shock result then and looks all the more remarkable now. It was the last game Chelsea failed to win and, if nothing else, it suggests nothing can be taken for granted this time. Liverpool will have to better that performance though and, if they cannot, Hayes’s team will be a big step closer to regaining the trophy they handed over to Manchester City last season. NA
Chelsea v Liverpool: Sunday, 12.30pm
7) Will Jiménez put Vardy in the shade?
Leicester were fortunate to draw 0-0 at home with Wolves on the opening day, when they had a lot of the play but struggled to stop the visitors’ counterattacks – and Adama Traoré did not even play that day. If Traoré is fit enough to play on Friday – which is not certain, since he suffered a dislocated shoulder against Manchester United – then Leicester will have cause for concern, especially with Wilfred Ndidi likely to be missing from their midfield owing to knee trouble. Still, Brendan Rodgers’s side are sure to have spells of possession and must hope that a week’s break has helped Jamie Vardy to rediscover the sharpness he showed earlier in the season. The striker, who at one stage this season seemed nearly certain to finish as the Premier League’s top scorer, has been below par in the past month or so, unlike Wolves’ Raúl Jiménez, who continues to perform like one of the best centre-forwards on the planet. PD
- Wolverhampton Wanderers v Leicester City: Friday, 8pm
8) Saints have Europe in their sights
Could Southampton finish in the European spots? Could Burnley? Both sit among the teams on 31 points – Arsenal among them – that are almost certainly safe from the drop and might, with another result or two in the bag, fancy taking the shackles off for a late sprint towards a largely vulnerable top six. Both have a game in hand on fifth-placed Sheffield United, eight points ahead as things stand, and they are pulling out enough results to suggest nothing can quite be discounted. Southampton, in particular, will find encouragement in what looks a remarkably inviting run of games before they host Manchester City on 11 April. It would still take an extraordinary hot streak but, given the way Ralph Hasenhüttl has turned their fortunes around since that grim 9-0 defeat to Leicester, it would probably be wise not to bet too heavily against them climbing higher still. NA
- Southampton v Burnley: Saturday, 12.30pm
9) A calmer mood at Chelsea as off-colour rivals meet
Manchester United have scored in only one of five league games this calendar year, while Chelsea have kept a clean sheet in only one of their five games of 2020, so at least one unfortunate record is going to look a bit brighter by the end of Monday. Chelsea’s last two league matches have finished in 2-2 draws, which was also the score the last time Manchester United played at Stamford Bridge – Ross Barkley scored a 96th-minute equaliser and United’s manager, José Mourinho, had to be restrained from responding violently to the Chelsea coach Marco Ianni’s gloating celebration. Since then Ianni has followed Maurizio Sarri to Juventus, Mourinho has gone to Tottenham, and relations between Frank Lampard and Ole Gunnar Solskjær and their respective coaching teams are likely to remain cordial. SB
- Chelsea v Manchester United: Monday, 8pm
10) Hearts’ best chance to lift survival hopes
Now that even Steven Gerrard has admitted that Rangers have bottled their title challenge, the chief intrigue in the Scottish Premiership is on the brawl to avoid relegation. Last-placed Hearts host second-from-bottom Hamilton on Saturday in a clash that will probably go a long way towards deciding who goes down. Hamilton arrive in wretched form – Guillaume Beuzelin described his side’s performance during Tuesday’s 3-1 defeat at home to Aberdeen as “horrendous” – and are likely to be deprived of key players, including the captain, Brian Easton, who suffered a shoulder injury on Tuesday. If Hearts do not take advantage this weekend, it is had to see them getting off the bottom this season. PD
- Hearts v Hamilton: Saturday, 3pm