Dilly-ding, dilly-dong Leicester are still favourites for the Premier League crown despite dropping points at home to West Brom. The Foxes had bottled it – or so the headline makers led us to believe on Tuesday – following a 2-2 draw. Tottenham were destined to take top spot. Beating London rivals West Ham at the Boleyn Ground – their seventh successive Premier League win would be the ideal scenario for hitting top spot. Arsenal of course, would also close the gap with a home victory over Swansea while City would maintain their push by taking three-points off Capital One victims Liverpool. But: “It’s a funny old game,” as they say and as Wednesdays’ final scores came in - Leicester’s two-points dropped suddenly became one gained as Arsenal, Man City and Tottenham all deservedly lost.
Olivier Giroud hasn’t scored in ten (all competitions) and a team lacking leaders are…. well lacking a leader. A Tony Adams, Patrick Vieira or Martin Keown to frighten the opposition and ruffle a few feathers. Priorities at City appear focussed on the Champions League. Their form over the past six games puts them on a par with Arsenal although they sit below the likes of West Brom, Stoke and Swansea. Over ten matches the picture is only marginally better. Tottenham provide the biggest threat to the most unlikely of Champions, their midweek loss can be written off as a blip but as the Lilywhites continue to fight on two fronts – will their involvement in the Europa League begin to take its toll? The fitness of Harry Kane remains key without an established back-up to guarantee goals.
One things for certain the title run-in promises to be one of the most exciting in recent years.
Tottenham – vs – Arsenal
Dele Alli kicked the ground while warming up against Swansea last weekend and although he completed 90 minutes without any obvious problems, the teenager was restricted to a role from the bench against West Ham. Mauricio Pochettino will run the rule over the teenager once again. Mousa Dembele is battling to shake off a groin problem in time for the big game. The 28-year-old trained on Friday and his involvement could hinge on whether he suffers any adverse reaction. Expect changes from the defeat on Wednesday. Invariably this will involve switching full-backs with Danny Rose and Kyle Walker expected to start. Heung-Min Son is pushing for a recall.
A ‘serious calf injury’ could side-line Petr Cech for up-to a month. His absence will hand David Ospina his first PL start of the season. Gabriel and Per Mertesacker will be paired in the heart of the Arsenal defence after Wenger revealed Laurent Koscielny would miss the next two games because of a minor injury. Despite reports, Santi Cazorla is not out for the remainder of the season and he should return in early April along with teammate Jack Wilshere. Wenger will continue to be “cautious” with Danny Welbeck following his long-term knee problem.
Manchester City – vs – Aston Villa
Pellegrini will point to a Capital One Cup hangover for their woeful midweek performance at Anfield. The much heralded return of Vincent Kompany has failed to spark a City revival – just four wins in 10 - which has included successive losses in the two PL matches the skipper has started. Yaya Toure will be named in the match-day squad after recovering from a heel injury but Kevin de Bruyne, Fabian Delph and Samir Nasri are still weeks away.
No fresh injury concerns for Remi Garde who made a host of changes on Tuesday. But, despite bringing in new faces including Jordan Ayew - who was back from suspension - it didn’t alter the result as Everton dominated proceedings. Probably the highlight of the evening for Villa supporters was the planned walkout on 74 minutes directed at current owner Randy Lerner (the club was formed in 1874). Garde admitted he doesn’t know when Jack Grealish (ankle) will be back while Carlos Sanchez, Jordan Amavi and Adama Traore remain out.
Newcastle United – vs – AFC Bournemouth
Aleksandar Mitrovic, Paul Dummett and Jack Colback passed late fitness tests on Wednesday, but ultimately the outcome stayed the same. A Shaqiri thunderbolt with 10 minutes remaining secured all three-points for the Potters along with a big helping hand from Jack Butland who denied Doumbia in time added on. Siem de Jong and Vernon Anita return to the squad. Newcastle must avoid defeat win against Bournemouth otherwise the tactically inept Toon boss could be sacked. No Fabricio Coloccini or Chancel Mbemba so Steven Taylor and Jamal Lascelles will marshal the defence again. Andros Townsend “will be assessed” but McClaren will not take any risks. No mention of Papiss Cisse who had been progressing, game week thirty now looks a more realistic target with the availability of Cheick Tiote also in question. On current form, it looks like two from three – Newcastle / Sunderland / Norwich – on who will join Aston Villa in the Championship next season.
Bournemouth took all three-points against their south coast rivals Southampton on Tuesday but the win came at a cost with Eddie Howe sweating on the availability of Harry Arter (Achilles) and Josh King (calf). The Cherries boss confirmed that both players will travel to Tyneside but they’re rated as “very doubtful.” Junior Stanislas - hamstring strain - is worse than originally feared with the winger expected to miss up-to six weeks. However, the return of Max Gradel should help to soften the blow.
Swansea City – vs – Norwich City
Not many could’ve predicted that Swansea would go the Emirates and take all three points. But, that’s exactly what they done to take their tally to three PL wins from five visit to Arsenals’ home. To put that into context - Spurs have won just two from 24, Man City one in 19 and Everton just once in 24 attempts. The victory gives them a six point cushion to those filling the relegation places. No Francesco Guidolin who is recovering in hospital from a chest infection so Alan Curtis will take charge. The Welshman faces a selection headache although there will be changes. Swansea have a full complement of players available after Leroy Fer and Ki Sung-Yeung trained on Friday.
Norwich are on the slide and ideally need to take points off Swansea to close the gap. The loss of Alex Tettey is blow with the Canaries midfielder “likely” to miss the remainder of the campaign after undergoing ankle ligament surgery. However, there was better news concerning Gary O’Neil – who needed stitches in an open head wound - and Robbie Brady – after he lost two teeth and chipped another - following a sickening clash of heads – both have been patched up and will be available. Patrick Bamford returns to the squad after missing out against his parent club and Seb Bassong should be close after failing a late fitness test on Tuesday. Steven Naismith will also return to the squad after he missed out on Tuesday due to fatigue. Andre Wisdom (knee) is the only definite absentee at this point but the Liverpool defender is expected to re-join the group next week.
Chelsea – vs – Stoke City
Guus Hiddink may look to rest Diego Costa ahead of the Champions League tie against Paris Saint-German but insists the Spanish striker will start. John Terry is not fit enough to be involved this weekend. Likewise, Pedro Rodriguez who is training away from the main group after tweaking his hamstring at Southampton. Kenedy will be assessed after he was forced off with a minor groin problem on Tuesday but Hiddink allayed any injury fears regarding Eden Hazard: ‘He had some discomfort but I don’t think it’s a big problem.’
Geoff Cameron is struggling with post-match ankle pain following his recent lay-off which is becoming a concern for Mark Hughes. The US international will face a late test but amidst a defensive injury crisis he may have to play through the pain-barrier. Phil Bardsley (calf) will miss a few weeks while skipper Ryan Shawcross is meeting a back specialist in Germany to help speed up his recovery. Marc Wilson (knee) is out until April and Glen Johnson is expected to be another 2-3 weeks. Charlie Adam is training with the group but lacks match-fitness and Shay Given has had a second knee operation to try and ensure his availability at this summer’s European Championships. Hughes remains hopeful his goalkeeper can play again this this season.
Southampton – vs – Sunderland
The Saints will be looking to bounce back from the hugely disappointing defeat at Bournemouth. The hamstring injury sustained by Charlie Austin capped a miserable evening and the striker will be out for up-to a month. Shane Long is also missing. The Irishman was kicked on the knee and although Ronald Koeman confirmed the knock is nothing serious, he is out of Saturdays’ game - Long should be back for the trip to Stoke next weekend. Expect Sadio Mane and Graziano Pelle to be recalled to the XI but Victor Wanyama is still suspended. Meanwhile, Jay Rodriguez and Florin Gardos are training with the group. However, it could be a few weeks before either is considered for the match-day squad.
Concussion and a deep cut above the left eye will keep Lee Cattermole out so Jack Rodwell should continue to deputise. Younes Kaboul is on standby to replace John O’Shea who was forced off due to a tight calf against Palace although the early signs are good after his scan came back all-clear. Jan Kirchhoff should be fine after Allardyce confirmed the German was only suffering from fatigue. Jeremain Lens is ruled out and the Dutchman will have to wait until the derby later this month to make his return. Duncan Watmore is set for a lengthy spell on the sidelines after damaging ankle ligaments.
Everton – vs – West Ham United
A chest infection is expected to keep Tom Cleverley out again. Kevin Mirallas – his replacement on Tuesday – was excellent turning provider for Aaron Lennon and Funes Mori in the 3-1 victory. Bryan Oviedo picked up a knock and while the defender won’t train, he hasn’t been ruled out just yet. Mo Besic should be in with a shout after recovering from a hamstring problem, likewise Darron Gibson although a place on the bench is the best he can hope for. Roberto Martinez hinted that Joel Robles would continue in goal despite Tim Howard returning to full fitness. The Toffees boss also revealed that Leighton Baines has been carrying an ankle niggle: "We need to make sure we solve that. He'll see a specialist." However, the full-back should be OK for the West Ham game. John Stones is back to full fitness: “He is now refreshed and is ready to help the team.”
James Collins will be out until April after limping off with a hamstring strain on Wednesday night. The 32-year-old has been excellent this season and his absence will be a major blow especially given the likes of Sam Byram (suspended), Joey O’Brien (hamstring), James Tomkins (calf), Winston Reid and Carl Jenkinson (ACL) are sidelined. Slaven Bilic may have no other option than to play youngster Reece Oxford on the right with Cheikhou Kouyate shuffling across into the centre. Victor Moses and Enner Valencia are expected to return in the cup while O’Brien has an outside chance of making the same game. Tomkins is targeting the Chelsea match in game week thirty-two.
Watford – vs – Leicester City
Craig Cathcart dropped to the bench on Wednesday night. The Hornets defender is struggling to shake off a calf complaint and Quique Flores does not expect the 27-year-old to be ready for this one either. Jose Manuel Jurado remains on the sidelines along with long-term absentees - Joel Ekstrand, Tommie Hoban and Rene Gilmartin. Watford made four changes against Man United and despite a decent performance they could freshen things again.
N’Golo Kante (hamstring) has returned to training ahead of schedule leaving Claudio Ranieri with a dilemma. Andy King was excellent in place of the injured Frenchman on Tuesday - grabbing a goal + an assist - and the Italian coach must now decide who will make way for the midfielder who has been one the Foxes’ stand out performers. Kasper Schmeichel is OK after overcoming a minor back issue.
Crystal Palace – vs – Liverpool
Palace are waiting on the results of a scan but in-form striker Connor Wickham remains a big doubt after picking up a knock at the Stadium of Light. However, Alan Pardew is well stocked in attack with Emmanuel Adebayor, Dwight Gayle and Marouane Chamakh all available. In addition, Bakary Sako will be added to the match-day squad. There are also doubts regarding the fitness of goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey who will face a late fitness test. Julien Speroni and Alex McCarthy are on standby should the Welsh international fail to recover in time.
The thigh injury sustained by Lucas Leiva last weekend is a lot more serious than originally thought and the Brazilian is set to miss the next six weeks. Daniel Sturridge has trained ahead of the game. The recently returned striker ‘couldn’t walk’ due to cramp after 120 minutes of football in the Capital One Cup and was rested midweek. Mamadou Sakho is also back after he was forced off against Man City last Sunday following a clash of heads with teammate Emre Can. Martin Skrtel and Dejan Lovren are also available.
West Brom – vs – Manchester United
The loss of Chris Brunt who underwent reconstructive knee surgery on Thursday is a massive blow for the Baggies. The Northern Ireland international will miss at least six months and with it this summer’s European Championships in France. His absence is likely to hand summer signing James Chester his chance at left-back having struggled to hold down a place all season. Tony Pulis reveals Jonny Evans has not recovered sufficiently from his injured hamstring.
Louis van Gaal is expecting most of his current crop of crocked stars to return in March with Marouane Fellaini, Phil Jones and Antonio Valencia next up. The trio have been training with the group although the Dutchman says they will need games with the second team initially. Anthony Martial, Marcos Rojo and Matteo Darmian were back midweek to bolster the United ranks. Chris Smalling will face a late fitness test after taking longer than originally anticipated to recover from his shoulder injury. Wayne Rooney is off for some warm weather recuperation in Dubai with his return pencilled in for early April. The club has confirmed Will Keane will have surgery to remedy the groin injury he suffered in the FA Cup. Donald Love is the latest player to join the treatment room having tweaked his hamstring playing for the U21s on Monday night.