Ticket pricing has been at the forefront of the news all week after Liverpool supporters won their battle with the Fenway Sports Group who had planned an increase in some match-day tickets up-to £77 from next season. The move prompted a 77th minute walkout during last weekends’ home game against Sunderland, a move which appears to have had the desired effect. The owners released a statement on Thursday confirming that prices will be frozen for the next two years which included an apology for the upheaval. Needless to say, managers from around the Premier League had their own views on the matter ahead of this weekends’ fixtures.
Newcastle manager Steve McClaren: "Football is a working class game and we must never take that away. Make the prices available so they can come and fill stadiums."
Baggies boss Tony Pulis: "Next year with the enormous amounts of money available, there should be a way of looking after supporters.”
Guus Hiddink: “We mustn't forget football is mainly about the players and 'the man in the street' who likes to watch the game.”
While Slaven Bilic says: “It shouldn't have to be a privilege for supporters to watch their teams.”
Supporters 1 v 0 Corporate Giants
Now back to the matter in hand. It looks like Arsene Wenger and Manuel Pellegrini have been singing from the same hymn sheet this week. Both mention the “importance” of the game while stressing “it is not decisive” with thirteen matches still remaining. City will be looking for an immediate response while the Gunners can’t afford anymore slip-ups: "You don't have to be a super mathematician to know that.” Meanwhile table-toppers Leicester insist they are under “No pressure. We just continue to dream with our fans.”
Remi Garde feels the Norwich result was a step in the right direction but performances need to improve if they “hope” to earn more points. Louis van Gaal says consistency is key for United: "We must show this every week." Francesco Guidolin is focussing on four or five wins to all but guarantee his sides Premier League survival but a resurgent Southampton side will be a tough nut to crack. The Saints are unbeaten in five (W4, D1) and haven’t conceded in 464 minutes.
Sam Allardyce is “convinced” Sunderland won’t lose “if we play like we did against City” and West Ham “have a good feeling” after their result against Liverpool. “You don't feel fatigue."
So without further ado, I present game week twenty-six.
Sunderland – vs – Manchester United
Adam Johnson will not be in the match-day squad after the club announced the winger would have his contract terminated with immediate effect. Duncan Watmore (ankle ligaments) is set for an extended period on the sidelines while Jeremain Lens will seek a second opinion and faces the prospect of surgery to remedy his troublesome hernia. Younes Kaboul (ankle) will be out a little longer although the problem is not thought to be serious. Fabio Borini is over his recent bout of illness and Jermain Defoe should be okay after the striker tweaked his hamstring at Anfield. Post-match the 33-year-old was confident his niggle wasn’t too serious. Seb Larsson is taking a lot longer than expected to recover from a medial knee ligament strain and Billy Jones (hip) faces a late fitness test.
Phil Jones, Guillermo Varela and Adnan Januzaj were all injured playing for the development side on Monday evening. Fortunately, none are particularly serious although the trio will “need time to recover.” No quick return for Bastian Schweinsteiger though who has been given a holiday by Louis van Gaal. The German midfielder strained knee ligaments in the 3rd round of the FA Cup is likely to be out until at least March. Marcos Rojo and Antonio Valencia are progressing well. Ashley Young and Luke Shaw remain on the sidelines. Will Keane will be included in the travelling squad following his five-goal haul for the Under-21s this week.
Swansea City – vs – Southampton
Swansea will welcome Sung-Yeung Ki back after the midfielder missed the draw with Crystal Palace due to mild concussion. However, the South Korean may have to settle for a place on the bench following “another good performance.” The Jacks are unbeaten since the loss to Sunderland (W2, D2) but still find themselves precariously close to the drop zone sitting just four-points above safety.
Ronald Koeman "is disappointed" that Victor Wanyama will be missing for the next five-games after his sending off against West Ham. Oriol Romeu and James Ward-Prowse are candidates to replace the big Kenyan but Matt Targett and Steven Davis are also available after recovering from injury. Jay Rodriguez could start training again within the next fortnight. The striker hasn’t featured since October due to a nerve problem in his foot which required surgery. Fraser Forster continues his remarkable return to first-team action. The England international goalkeeper made it five successive clean-sheets as 10-man Southampton held out for a narrow win in game week twenty-five. Graziano Pelle started for the first time in the PL since before Christmas while Charlie Austin was included in the squad at St Mary’s.
AFC Bournemouth – vs – Stoke City
Max Gradel is back and training at the club: "But he's still got a long way to go injury-wise," says Cherries boss Eddie Howe who adds. "We're pleased with Tommy Elphick, he's had no reaction but we do need to make sure he's 100 per cent before a return." Other than those mentioned, only long-term victims Tyrone Mings and Callum Wilson remain in the treatment room after Junior Stanislas returned against Arsenal having tweaked knee ligaments at the Stadium of Light three weeks ago.
Ryan Shawcross has "upped his training" but it is a slow process and the skipper will miss out again. “Hopefully we'll have him available in two weeks' time,” Hughes said. "Walters has trained but he's not 100 per cent still from the virus he's had. Hopefully he will be even better in 24 hours' time." New signing Giannelli Imbula has been "really impressive" in the training. “(The Everton result) was disappointing but his performance was a thing to take away.” Saturday will come too soon for US international Geoff Cameron while Shay Given, Marc Wilson and Charlie Adam are ruled out.
Crystal Palace – vs – Watford
Dwight Gayle has trained and could come in contention while the return of Connor Wickham will boost attacking options even further. Bakary Sako and Yannick Bolasie are running outside and the pair "should be back to face Tottenham in the FA Cup" next weekend. James McArthur "could" return before the end of the season after it was revealed the midfielder would not need surgery: “The ankle injury will heal itself,” said the surgeon. Joe Ledley will face a late fitness test but Jason Puncheon has been sidelined for a "long period."
Miguel Britos will be assessed after a dead leg forced him off at White Hart Lane: “He received a very hard kick in the (leg) muscle,” Quique Flores confirmed. The Spanish boss also hinted that he is prepared to change things after just one PL win in eight: “There has been a lot of matches in the last three months and we need to manage. Recovery of the players is not the same for each individual." On the absence of Troy Deeney from last weekends’ starting line-up: “He is very important to the team but I need to think about him for the season. We have 25 players." Tommie Hoban continues to step up his recovery from groin surgery along with Joel Ekstrand (ACL).
Everton – vs – West Brom Albion
Roberto Martinez will make a late decision on Oumar Niasse who has been granted international clearance following his arrival from Russian side Lokomotiv Moscow. The attacking midfielder has been working on his fitness and the Toffees boss will take a good look in training on Friday. Martinez will also check on Tim Howard (knee) and John Stones (hamstring) after the pair stepped up their rehab over the past three-days. They "should" be with the first team from Thursday he revealed during yesterdays’ pre-match briefing. Saturday will be too early for Mo Besic. However, the midfielder is close and he could make an appearance in the 5th round of the FA Cup. Everton are on a decent run which is likely to mean Leighton Baines will have to be satisfied with a place on the bench once again.
"We've got one or two knocks. We'll look at Jonny Evans, Chris Brunt and Craig Dawson but Gareth McAuley won't make it,” said Pulis who followed up by saying. "Berahino is nowhere near as fit or sharp as we want him, it's going to take time. Hopefully we can get him to good level." James Chester, Christian Gamboa and Sebastian Pocognoli are all options if the Baggies boss needs to shuffle his back four at Goodison.
Norwich City – vs – West Ham United
The Canaries are in free-fall and in desperate need of points after the defeat to Villa. The loss saw Norwich drop into the bottom three for the first time since the opening weekend. New signings Ivo Pinto and Timm Klose need time to adapt, but with only thirteen games remaining, time is against Alex Neil. Alex Tettey serves the second of his two match ban but Graham Dorrans has been passed fit after recovering from a sickness bug. Andre Wisdom is struggling to overcome a knee injury.
West Ham came through a bruising 120 minutes of football this week to guarantee their place in the next round of the FA Cup. However, the win came at a cost having picked up a number of injuries on the night. Winston Reid and Joey O'Brien were forced off with hamstring related problems and the pair are waiting on the results of a scan to confirm the extent of the damage. Sam Byram is likely to come in at right-back while Angelo Ogbonna is poised for a recall. Slaven Bilic confirms James Tomkins (calf) "is out for five weeks" but Enner Valencia plus one / two others who picked up knocks "will be okay." Cheikhou Kouyate "is doing well" but because of the concussion guidelines the West Ham midfielder will not available for the trip to Carrow Road. Alex Song is back while Manuel Lanzini will re-join the group on Sunday. Diafra Sakho will be slightly longer "maybe five days after."
Chelsea – vs – Newcastle United
Diego Costa broke his nose as he challenged for a header in training on Thursday, but the Spanish striker is expected to be available. Gary Cahill should replace the injured Kurt Zouma although: “There are many options to cover,” suggested Guus Hiddink. The Dutchman will not be making wholesale changes ahead of the midweek Champions League tie against PSG. Alexandre Pato is undertaking a mini pre-season and is not ready, likewise, Radamel Falcao who is “still recovering” after another setback. No mention of Loic Remy who should be close to overcoming a calf injury.
Jack Colback and Emmanuel Rivière have been training all week and the pair will be added to the United squad. After the trip to Stamford Bridge, Newcastle have a break of eighteen days and Steve McClaren is hopeful of having another 3-4 players back. Siem de Jong returned to training on Monday but won’t be involved but Daryl Janmaat has been passed fit after recovering from a dead leg plus a knock to the ankle. Jamal Lascelles completes his one game ban but McClaren is unlikely to tinker too much with his back four following his sides’ first clean sheet since early December. Still no news on Chancel Mbemba who travelled to Belgium this week for a second opinion on the ankle injury he sustained at Everton. Steven Taylor is expected to start his second Premier League game since August.
Arsenal – vs – Leicester City
Arsene Wenger expects to have a similar squad to the one which travelled to Bournemouth in game week twenty-five, but stressed: “There are still two days of training to go.” A thigh injury will keep Tomas Rosicky out and while Danny Welbeck is ready in terms of his fitness, the England international won’t be back until Arsenal face Hull City in the FA Cup. Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere will be another month but the pair are running again. Everyone else is available. Regarding the absence of Per Mertesacker from the starting eleven in recent matches, the French coach replied: "Sometimes I use a different formula. I have three centre-backs, I adapt to their level of form and opponent."
Matty James continues to work inside with the physios as he recovers from a serious knee injury. Meanwhile, Jeffrey Schlupp has re-joined the group after missing the last two months because of a hamstring strain: “After Norwich he will come with me in the first team squad,” said Claudio Ranieri. No fresh injury concerns for the Foxes: “Everybody is okay.” New signing Daniel Amartey continues to work on his fitness and is targeting a return in game week twenty-seven. Riyad Mahrez became the first PL player to reach double figures for both goals (14) and assists (10) this season following an outstanding performance at the Etihad.
Aston Villa – vs – Liverpool
Alan Hutton returned to training and comes into contention having missed the previous eight games because of a hamstring problem. However, Jack Grealish is ruled out after rolling his ankle in training on Wednesday. The attacking midfielder is still being assessed. Rudy Gestede will face a late fitness test but Remi Garde admits his involvement “could be a risk.” Carlos Sanchez, Adama Traore, Jordan Amavi and Libor Kozak remain on the sidelines. Jordan Ayew serves the second game of his three match ban.
Daniel Sturridge played for an hour on Tuesday night but the Liverpool forward will be managed carefully between games. Philippe Coutinho and Divock Origi were also involved and Jürgen Klopp must decide if the pair are ready for the Premier League. Steven Caulker has returned to training after a back problem ruled him out of the cup replay at West Ham, but development players Brad Smith (hamstring) and Cameron Brannagan (illness) won’t be considered. Dejan Lovren is struggling to shake off a muscular issue and Joe Allen will be ‘out for a while’ after suffering muscular injury against Sunderland. Christian Benteke will return to his former club on Sunday, but 25-year-old is not in a good run of form with no goals in 11 games and may have to settle for a place on the bench.
Manchester City – vs – Tottenham Hotspur
And finally what a game to finish the weekend. First up. The good news: Pellegrini confirms David Silva and Vincent Kompany have been passed fit. “Vincent has worked for three-weeks with no problems. He played 45 minutes versus Under-21s. I think he's ready," mused the Chilean. However, the injuries just keep on coming for City: “Sagna, Mangala, Delph, Nasri, Navas, De Bruyne and Bony are out." Fabian Delph suffered an Achilles injury which could mean up-to seven-weeks out and Bacary Sagna has a knee problem: “He needs an injection and one week at least to return to work." Jesus Navas is battling to make the League Cup final later this month while Wilfried Bony and Eliaquim Mangala have suffered setbacks in recent weeks. City have had eight days of hurt and will be looking to make amends - Sergio Aguero has scored 7 in his last six league games.
After grinding out a result against Watford, Spurs find themselves hitting the dizzy heights of second place. Only Leicester have beaten Tottenham in the last two months – a run which includes 7 wins from nine league matches. Harry Kane and Dele Alli have deservedly taken the plaudits but no side is better defensively - just (19) conceded in twenty-five games and none since Kevin Wimmer came into the side. Only Clinton N'Jie and Jan Vertonghen are missing for Spurs this weekend: "The rest of the squad is fit which is good news."