As the Premier League’s 2017-18 season nears the half-way mark, a clear picture is beginning to emerge as the winter fixtures come thick and fast.
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And with Matchday 18 almost here, The Statesman takes a look at the five talking points ahead of the weekend’s action:
Can Tottenham Hotspur end Manchester City’s unbeaten run?
The runaway leaders are threatening to make the Premier League boring as they near an incredible 16th win in a row, but can a resurgent Tottenham Hotspur bring City’s incredible streak to a screeching halt on Saturday?
Let’s not forget, Mauricio Pochettino managed to beat Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering Barcelona side with Espanyol back when the duo was working in the La Liga and last year, the Argentine masterminded Pep’s first league defeat of the season as well.
Of course, City are a far better team this year, as their tally of 49 points from 17 games (maximum possible is 52) attests, but Spurs are a bright side that aren’t afraid of anyone, as their performances in the UEFA Champions League this season have proven.
To complicate matters, three first-choice defenders are set to miss Saturday’s clash at the Etihad. Benjamin Mendy is a long-term casualty, while John Stones is not expected to return till after the New Year and club captain Vincent Kompany has muscular issues.
The Lilywhites have problems of their own at the back, for they are without defensive lynchpin Toby Alderweireld (injured) and Davinson Sanchez (suspended) and they look vulnerable without the central defenders.
Heung-Min Son is on fire of late, while Harry Kane is in fine form as well but so are the likes of David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne.
The odds are still in the Sky Blues’ favour, but stranger things have happened and the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea will be praying fervently that Spurs pull of a miracle at the Etihad come Saturday.
Dogged West Brom to frustrate Manchester United?
The Red Devils got back to winning ways by seeing off Bournemouth in mid-week, but their victory was very much a laboured one and after Alan Pardew’s men held Liverpool to a scoreless draw at Anfield on Wednesday, could the Baggies do a repeat against United on the weekend as well?
Like him or hate him, you can’t ignore Pardew, for the 56-year-old has a solid record at all the Premier League clubs he’s worked at in the past.
Tony Pulis’ sacking was contentious to say the least and the challenge for Pardew is to transform the dour Baggies into an attacking unit that punches above its weight. They already have a solid foundation and big things are expected from the unpredictable manager.
United have not looked cohesive in attack, with star forward Romelu Lukaku misfiring of late and unless the hulking Belgian gets into his groove, the Red Devils will find it hard to come away from The Hawthorns with three points.
United’s great rivals, Manchester City, are threatening to run away with the league title but the Sky Blues face Tottenham on Saturday and could drop points for the first time in four months.
Regardless of the result at the Etihad, this fixture is a must-win for Jose Mourinho, but will Alan Pardew throw a spanner in the works on Sunday?
Will Southampton extend Chelsea’s home woes?
Chelsea, in stark contrast to last season, have been leaky at the back due to a combination of injuries and indifferent form and Antonio Conte will be worried when a dangerous Southampton side come visiting on Saturday.
Stamford Bridge, a fortress in the past, has seen the likes of Burnley, Manchester City and come away with a win while Arsenal managed to hold the Blues to a draw and their poor home record is a major reason why their title defence is in tatters.
Southampton may have gotten thumped by Leicester City in mid-week, but in Charlie Austin they have an in-form forward while Alvaro Morata is a major doubt for the defending champions.
The Spaniard has hit the ground running since his summer move from Real Madrid, but of late, the frenetic pace and the hectic winter schedule seems to have gotten to him as the Spaniard has struggled with niggling injuries.
If he doesn’t play, expect Eden Hazard to continue in his false-nine role but will Chelsea’s leaky defence be breached once again?
The Saints posses mercurial talents such as Dusan Tadic and Sofiane Boufal and while the Blues were impressive in mid-week, Manuel Pellegrino’s men will give as good as they get and this is one tie that will be entertaining to say the least and Southampton will want an encore of their famous 3-1 win at the Bridge in the 2015-16 season.
Bournemouth vs Liverpool: Upset alert?
Just as Liverpool were getting their groove back, the Reds inexplicably slipped to draws against Everton and West Bromwich Albion.
Jurgen Klopp fielded a weakened side for the Merseyside Derby on the weekend and ‘Big Sam’s’ Tofees managed to fight back to claim a 1-1 draw while the Baggies frustrated the Reds in mid-week as they slipped out of the top-four in the process.
And as Burnley continue their sensational start to the season, Liverpool are under pressure to eke out their first win in three games against the Cherries, but that won’t be easy for Eddie Howe’s team have showed plenty of pluck in recent weeks.
Jermain Defoe looks in good shape and while they aren’t exactly free-scoring, the home factor counts in Bournemouth’s favour as well.
A backline consisting of Dejan Lovren and Ragnar Klavan doesn’t exactly have opposition strikers quaking in the boots and the duo could prove to be Liverpool’s bane yet again come Sunday night.
And who can forget the seven-goal thriller the Cherries won at the Vitality Stadium last season?
Injuries threatening to blight festive period
Considering the Premier League has always operated without a winter break, the busy winter fixture is not a novelty but the charm is sure wearing off.
The likes of Richarlison, Alvaro Morata, Vincent Kompany and Aaron Ramsey, to name a few, have suffered muscular injuries in recent weeks, to spring the debate of whether a winter break is the need of the hour in the English top-flight.
Five English sides may reached the knockouts of the UEFA Champions League this season, but whether or not they can make deep runs remains to be seen.
The extra games they play (primarily due to the EFL Cup), cause teams to fade towards the business end of the season and perhaps the administrators need to re-think their scheduling strategy.
Maybe not the amount of rest afforded in the Bundesliga or the La Liga, but a week-long stretch could recharge the batteries and prove to be blessing for managers and players alike.