FA Cup quarter-final weekend has decimated the Premier League calendar. Only five fixtures survive the cull as Crystal Palace, Everton, Chelsea, Arsenal, Watford, Man United and West Ham aim for a Wembley appearance in May. Double game week dates are pencilled in for Rounds 34 and 37 although nothing official has been announced.
Monday night will see the return of Rafa Benitez for the first time in the Premier League since his tenure as interim boss at Chelsea. His arrival on a three-year contract draws to a close nine months of hurt on Tyneside for Steve McClaren and ends days of speculation following the loss to Bournemouth. Benitez has 10-games to earn himself a nice little £2m bonus to go with his (reported) £4m per year.
And speaking of managers. Jürgen Klopp is very much flavour of the month on Merseyside while the stock of Van Gaal is on the slide following his brief upturn in fortunes. Liverpool comfortably despatched their north-west rivals United in the first leg of their Europa League clash on Thursday. United were so bad it prompted this insightful post-match analysis from former Red Paul Scholes: "Liverpool had a way of playing. United - I didn't have a clue what they were trying to do."
Norwich City – vs – Manchester City
Alex Neil will give Robbie Brady (calf) and Steven Naismith (hamstring) every chance to feature in the early kick-off. Both players were replaced at Swansea but the Canaries boss revealed a scan showed no significant damage. Andre Wisdom has trained all week and the Liverpool loanee will be available for selection – Seb Bassong is rated as 50-50. Alex Tettey will miss the remainder of the campaign having successfully undergone ankle surgery to repair damaged ligaments.
City face Dynamo Kyiv in the Champions League next Tuesday, but Manuel Pellegrini has promised to name a strong line-up knowing that his side can’t afford any more slip-ups. The Citizens are 10 points behind Leicester with just one game in hand and realistically they need to win at least seven of those to stand any chance of winning the title. Kevin de Bruyne, Samir Nasri and Fabian Delph have been ruled out, but the trio are set to return after the international break. Yaya Toure is sidelined because of a heel problem and Pellegrini confirmed the injury is similar to the one sustained by Sergio Aguero back in November which kept the Argentine out for a month. City have won just four of their last ten in the league but should ease past a Norwich side who have conceded 12 times in their last four games at Carrow Road.
Stoke City – vs – Southampton
Ryan Shawcross re-joined the group in training this week giving Mark Hughes a defensive dilemma. The skipper has been out since January due to a back problem and the Potters boss must decide whether he is fit enough to start after “two intensive sessions.” Left-back Eric Pieters is managing a calf injury and the Dutchman will be checked closer to kick-off. Meanwhile, Charlie Adam will come under consideration after playing 75 minutes for the Under-21s on Monday night. Phil Bardsley (calf), Glen Johnson and Marc Wilson (both knee) remain out along with Shay Given who is recovering from his second knee operation within the last six months.
Jose Fonte joins Victor Wanyama on the sidelines after the captain was sent-off for hauling down Sunderland attacker Fabio Borini when the Italian was through on goal. His absence is likely to mean Maya Yoshida is recalled to the starting XI while Matt Targett is another possibility if the Dutchman decides to go with five at the back. Jay Rodriguez will play for the Under-21s next Monday and a decision on his first team return will be made after that - although Koeman won’t rush the 26-year-old who has missed the last four months following foot surgery to cure a nerve problem. Florin Gardos will be a little longer as he recovers from the knee ligament injury which has kept him out all season. Shane Long has trained without any problems – a kick to the knee kept him out of game week twenty-nine - and Charlie Austin is around 10-14 days away.
AFC Bournemouth – vs – Swansea City
Josh King has been passed fit despite a niggling calf injury. The summer signing from Blackburn is being “managed” between games and King will be looking to build upon his excellent man-of-the-match performance at Newcastle last weekend. Harry Arter (Achilles) will have a late test while a hamstring strain ensures Junior Stanislas is out of this one. Eddie Howe will reluctant to change things too much on the back of an excellent 3-1 victory at St James’ Park. Dan Gosling was the only new face from the win over south coast rivals Southampton and the Cherries’ could name the same XI as they close in on the 40-point mark.
Ki Sung-Yeung has trained ahead of the trip to Bournemouth. The South Korean was in line for a return last weekend after limping off at the Emirates but failed to make the match-day squad. Back-to-back wins gives Swansea a nine-point cushion from those in the drop zone and I suspect both sides would be happy with a point as they edge closer to safety. Francesco Guidolin (chest infection) is out of hospital but the Italian won’t be in the dugout. Alan Curtis will run things from the sidelines as the Jacks aim to make it three wins-in-a-row for the first time since Garry Monk left the club.
Aston Villa – vs – Tottenham Hotspur
No fresh injury concerns for Villa who sit rooted to the bottom of the Premier League. After a promising opening forty-five at the Etihad last time out - Villa crumbled in the second half – as City cruised home by four. Remi Garde may consider a formational change -- ditching his three centre-halves – which would see him revert back to a flat back four after conceding seven in the last two. Jores Okore is one of those pushing for a recall. No timeline on Carlos Sanchez or Jack Grealish while Adama Traore is another who should be close but won’t be involved. On current form, it’s easy to see why no-one appears to be in a rush to return to the squad.
Pochettino made changes in Europe and the Lilywhites were easily dealt with in Germany. However, Villa aren’t Borussia Dortmund and Tottenham will be expected to recall a number of their big guns. Dele Alli and Eric Dier should be ready despite carrying minor knocks. Danny Rose injured his calf against Arsenal and while the media speculate on his expected length of absence (up-to a month in some quarters) I’m told the problem is not that serious although his involvement on Sunday remains a doubt. Clinton N’Jie has stepped up his recovery from knee surgery and Jan Vertonghen could be back to face Liverpool after the international break.
Leicester City – vs – Newcastle United
Ranieri confirms Leicester have no fresh injury concerns. Riyad Mahrez limped off at Vicarage Road last weekend due to cramp but the winger is fine following six days of rest and recovery. Matthew James is back with the main group following a little setback. Five wins should secure the Premier League crown for the Foxes.
Benitez will take charge at the King Power and the Geordie faithful will be hoping for some Rafa magic having seen their side drop to 19th in the table. The home defeat to Bournemouth hammered home the stark reality that Newcastle are in deep trouble and something needed to change. Captain Fabricio Coloccini (calf) has trained and could return to the side but Paul Dummett is expected to miss around a month after suffering ANOTHER hamstring strain. Papiss Cisse and Andros Townsend will have a few additional days to stake their claim for a place in the match day squad after they stepped up their recovery from injury.