When the dust settles on the 2018-19 Premier League season, the final week of February could prove to be the most decisive period of the campaign.
An eventful weekend saw Liverpool move a point clear at the top following a draining 0-0 draw against an injury-hit Manchester United at Old Trafford.
Manchester City, meanwhile, completed the first leg of a possible quadruple by defeating Chelsea on penalties in Carabao Cup final that will forever be remembered for Kepa Arrizabalaga‘s refusal to be substituted in the closing moments of extra-time.
Tottenham’s title hopes seemed to take terminal blow with a 2-1 defeat at Burnley, while Arsenal quietly moved into the top four with a 2-0 home win against Southampton. Meanwhile, Claude Puel paid the price for a home defeat against Crystal Palace by losing his job as Leicester manager.
With a full midweek of fixtures to come — and every one of the Premier League’s “big six” clubs playing on Wednesday night — how much will the events of the weekend shape the next round of fixtures and how will the race for the title and top four look at the end of it?
Can in-form Watford land a blow against faltering Liverpool?
Make no mistake, Liverpool have lost momentum in recent weeks and Jurgen Klopp’s team looked tired and jaded against United. The stalemate was Liverpool’s fourth draw in five games in all competitions and their second successive goalless draw.
Mohamed Salah, last season’s talisman, has scored just once in that run of disappointing results and Liverpool’s goal threat appeared to take a big blow with Roberto Firmino leaving Old Traford on crutches with an ankle injury.
Amid all the doom and gloom, it is easy to overlook the fact that Liverpool moved a point clear at the top of the table by avoiding defeat at United. Yet the visit of Watford will be a huge test for Liverpool, not only because Javi Gracia’s team, sitting in seventh position, are the best of the rest outside the top six. Their last game was a 5-1 win at Cardiff City and that was two days earlier than Liverpool’s trip to United, so Watford will be fresh and determined to claim a big result.
Fitness could be a major factor at Anfield on Wednesday and the game has now become a big obstacle for Liverpool to clear.
Will Carabao Cup success propel City to the quadruple?
Winning fills teams with confidence, and Manchester City’s players have now walked off the pitch having won 14 of their last 15 games in all competitions. They may have drawn 0-0 over 120 minutes with Chelsea at Wembley, but Pep Guardiola’s men still went back to the dressing room as the victors and that feeling will only work in their favour as they chase down a haul of four trophies this season.
West Ham are next up, with former City manager Manuel Pellegrini returning to the Etihad for the first time, but the Hammers face a tall order if they are to derail the home team’s title bid.
Sunday was a gruelling afternoon for City, with Fernandinho and Aymeric Laporte both limping off with injuries. Nicolas Otamendi also played through the pain barrier to finish the game. But City have real depth in their squad and they will now believe that Carabao Cup glory can be a springboard to success in the other three competitions.
Just like Liverpool, City will be feeling the fatigue now, but the West Ham game is a chance to show that they have the resources to cope better than their rivals at Anfield.
Will injuries halt Solskjaer’s momentum at United?
Having lost three players — Juan Mata, Ander Herrera and Jesse Lingard — to injury during the first half against Liverpool, Manchester United arguably did well to emerge with a draw against the league leaders. Nemanja Matic missed out with an injury sustained in training 24 hours earlier and is facing a month on the sidelines, while Marcus Rashford had to play with pain-killing injections to finish the game after taking an early knock.
Caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer admitted afterward that he may be forced to play some of United’s youngsters against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park on Wednesday and the fear for United now is that they are simply running out of players at a key stage of the season.
Solskjaer has worked a sporting miracle to get United back in the race for the top four, closing an 11-point gap, since replacing Jose Mourinho in mid-December. But facing Palace without Mata, Herrera, Lingard, Matic, Rashford and, most likely, Anthony Martial, will be a major test of United’s strength in depth. Palace have become a tough nut to crack under Roy Hodgson, but they now have flair and goals in the shape of Wilfried Zaha and Michy Batshuayi, so United’s injury woes could not have come at a worse time.
Are Arsenal suddenly in pole position for fourth place?
Arsenal climbed into the top four almost unnoticed on Sunday following their comfortable win at home to Southampton. And they can consolidate their grip on a Champions League spot at home to Bournemouth on Wednesday, especially with rivals United and Chelsea both facing tough games against Crystal Palace and Spurs respectively.
Bournemouth have lost their last nine games away from home in all competitions and it is crucial that Arsenal bag all three points against Eddie Howe’s team, with their next two fixtures seeing them face Spurs and United. If Unai Emery’s team can open up a gap ahead of United and Chelsea on Wednesday, it will give them a cushion, and confidence, going into their next two league games.
Once the United game is out of the way, Arsenal will not face any other top six team this season, so they have a comfortable run-in. And the key to whether they finish in the top four or not is likely be what happens in their next three games, starting against Bournemouth.
Will Sarri survive another make-or-break week?
Maurizio Sarri had a good 118 minutes against Manchester City at Wembley, only for goalkeeper Kepa to make it a bad one with his remarkable show of defiance by refusing to leave the pitch as a substitute. The incident has raised further questions about Sarri’s authority as manager, and whether he can ride the storm to hold on to his job.
So Wednesday’s clash with Spurs at Stamford Bridge is another massive test for the Italian. If he can guide Chelsea to victory, it will banish the storm clouds and put the team back in the hunt for a top-four finish. But this is always one of Chelsea’s biggest games of the season, due to the rivalry between the two clubs, and a defeat could be a killer blow for Sarri.
Every game is now a big one for the Chelsea boss, but this one feels like a make-or-break night for the under-pressure Sarri.
What now for Spurs and Pochettino?
It has happened again. Just when Spurs looked like making a late surge into the title race, they blew it with a defeat against relegation-threatened Burnley. Mauricio Pochettino’s postmatch meltdown, when he confronted referee Mike Dean on the pitch at Turf Moor, highlighted the frustrations felt by the Spurs boss after watching his team fall short once again when the pressure is on.
Spurs are now six points behind leaders Liverpool and seven ahead of fourth-placed Arsenal, so they are threatening to end up in some kind of No-man’s Land in third. But a defeat at Chelsea will suddenly see Spurs dragged back into the race for fourth and see question marks grow over the mental strength of Pochettino and his players.
This is a chance for them to land a big blow on Chelsea and banish any fears of missing out on the top four, so will they take it?