Following Mondays’ win, Alan Pardew believes ‘the stars have aligned’ and the route is clear for Leicester to be crowned as Premier League champions. Four wins (possibly five) during the run-in should just about do for the Foxes with Tottenham the only other credible contenders. Their exit from the Europa League at the hands of Borussia Dortmund will only serve to strengthen that notion.
Down at the bottom and with Villa seemingly doomed. Newcastle threw down the gauntlet to their relegation rivals - Sunderland and Norwich - when they named Rafa Benitez as their new head coach – the only manager in history to have won the UEFA Cup, UEFA Super Cup, UEFA Champions League and the FIFA Club World Cup.
Three massive derbies to look forward to this weekend. City and United promises to be a typically fierce affair - defeat for the red half could be the straw that finally breaks the Van Gaal back. In London, West Ham travel to the Bridge knowing a win would go a long way to helping them secure a Champions League spot. And of course, the Tyne-Wear derby where Newcastle will be hoping to end a run of six consecutive defeats in this fixture.
Everton – vs – Arsenal
The Toffees go into the early kick-off full of confidence after breezing past Chelsea to reach the FA Cup semi-final last weekend. Romelu Lukaku was at his brilliant, all-powerful self to take his tally to 25 for the season while ending his former employers’ hopes of silverware this year. One downside from the game – losing Gareth Barry to a red card which will see the holding midfielder sit the next two out - Mo Besic is favourite to come in. Kevin Mirallas is available after serving his one match ban and Bryan Oviedo has been given the all-clear to train again after he was hospitalised following a chest infection. However, the Costa Rican has lost a lot of weight and is considered a doubt.
Mathieu Flamini tweaked his hamstring in Barcelona otherwise Arsenal will travel with a similar squad. Jack Wilshere is progressing well but won’t be ready after the international break, likewise, Santi Cazorla whose comeback has been delayed. The Spaniards knee is said to be “perfect” but his recovery from Achilles tendonitis has been very slow. Petr Cech is on schedule to return in early April while Wenger “hopes” to have Aaron Ramsey available earlier than originally anticipated. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is at least another month away although he should play again before the end of the season. Francis Coquelin, Theo Walcott, Olivier Giroud and Joel Campbell all started from the bench midweek and all four will be pushing for a recall as Arsenal go all out for three-points.
Crystal Palace – vs – Leicester City
Palace are struggling to find any form away from the FA Cup – no league wins in 2016 - and the loss of joint top-scorer Connor Wickham to a thigh injury will make a tough game against the leaders even harder - Emmanuel Adebayor looks set to deputise. The Eagles lost in the league to a 10 man Liverpool side two weeks ago amidst the controversy of a Christian Benteke penalty and Alan Pardew will be hoping to bounce straight back to halt their alarming slide. Jason Puncheon is over his recent hamstring strain but Mile Jedinak will face a late test as he struggles with lower back pain.
Leicester increased their lead at the top to five-points with a win on Monday night. A well-taken Okazaki overhead kick on 25 minutes was enough to seal the victory over Newcastle. No fresh injury concerns for the Foxes who were able to name an unchanged side. Andy King (hamstring) will be checked on Friday while Matty James has re-joined the group in training following a setback in his recovery from a serious knee injury.
West Bromwich Albion – vs – Norwich City
Tony Pulis gave tight-lipped responses ahead of his sides’ clash with Norwich on Saturday only confirming James Morrison “still isn’t fit” while “one or two have knocks.” However, club doctor Mark Gillett was “optimistic” earlier this week that injured trio Jonny Evans, Craig Dawson and Callum McManaman will be available. Chris Brunt has been ruled out for around 9 months after rupturing his anterior cruciate ligament.
Alex Neil confirms Nathan Redmond will be missing for a “few weeks” due to an ankle ligament injury. No specific timeline although “he will definitely play again this season.” Robbie Brady and Steven Naismith are close with the former best placed for a return. Ryan Bennett is struggling and will face a late test but Seb Bassong is back in the gaffers’ plans after recovering from his recent injury. Alex Tettey won’t feature again this season having undergone ankle ligament surgery.
Watford – vs – Stoke City
Watford were unlikely victors at Arsenal in the FA Cup but the win was marred by the sight of leading scorer Odion Ighalo departing with 8 minutes remaining due to an apparent muscular issue. Post-match the player suggested his substitution was planned to safeguard him, but Quique Flores has confirmed Ighalo will face a late fitness test. Joel Ekstrand is training and playing for the Under-21s, but after a year out the defender won’t be thrown straight back in. The status of Miguel Britos is currently unknown after the defender limped out of his sides’ warm-up prior to kick-off against Leicester two weeks ago. The Hornets will check on one or two unnamed others.
Stoke skipper Ryan Shawcross has been ruled out due to a minor back strain which could see Marc Muniesa step-up while Geoff Cameron playing in a more central role is another possibility. No Glen Johnson either but there was better news regarding Phil Bardsley who has trained - Mark Hughes will check on Eric Pieters. The Dutch full-back has been managing a calf complaint and is rated as 50-50. The boss also expects Xherdan Shaqiri to miss between 10-14 days after limping off against Southampton because of a thigh strain.
Chelsea – vs – West Ham United
Physically, Radamel Falcao is over the thigh injury which has kept him sidelined since November. However, Guus Hiddink insists the striker must regain his fitness: “He might be ready after the break.” Diego Costa is suspended leaving Loic Remy, Bertrand Traore and Alexandre Pato to fight it out for a place in the starting XI. The Spanish striker is also carrying a minor hip injury, the reason behind his omission from the Spanish squad. Belgium coach Marc Wilmots expects Eden Hazard – also hip – to be missing for up-to a month. John Terry is fit and available after recovering from a hamstring strain.
James Collins (hamstring) won’t return until after the international break but the Hammers defender is progressing well. His place should go to Winston Reid who was given the all-clear following tests this week. The New Zealand international was replaced on the hour mark at Old Trafford after complaining of hamstring discomfort. But a scan revealed there was no damage to the muscle. James Tomkins has re-joined the main group in training but won’t be involved as he lacks match fitness. Victor Moses is not eligible to play under the terms of loan agreement.
Swansea City – vs – Aston Villa
Andre Ayew returned to France for treatment on an ankle injury earlier this week and won’t be available for Saturdays’ game. Meanwhile, Modou Barrow – his replacement at the Vitality - is a doubt due to hamstring tightness. Marvin Emnes and Bafetimbi Gomis could come in if required after the pair were introduced from the bench against Bournemouth. Jefferson Montero is over his recent bout of illness.
Carlos Sanchez is finally ready to make his comeback having spent the best part of three months sidelined because of a hamstring problem. The return of the Colombian is a massive boost for Remi Garde who still has hopes of beating the drop. Jack Grealish and Adama Traore are closing in on a return although this weekend will be too early – the pair are targeting Chelsea at home in game week thirty-two. Gabby Agbonlahor will have the thigh injury which kept him out of the defeat to Tottenham checked. No fresh news on Libor Kozak.
Southampton – vs – Liverpool
Jay Rodriguez played for the Under-21s on Monday – his first competitive game in almost 5 months. But Ronald Koeman won’t consider the striker just yet and he will stay with the development side to gain some valuable game time. All being well he should return within 2-3 weeks. Charlie Austin is doing well and will come back into contention after the break. Graziano Pelle is over a niggling knee problem - the reason behind his recent goal drought. Jose Fonte and Victor Wanyama are available again having served their respective bans and the FA overturned the red card issued to Sadio Mane which means that he will also be included in the match-day squad.
An initial scan came back all-clear but Klopp will send Alberto Moreno for further tests after the full-back complained of discomfort in his hamstring during the build-up to Thursday’s Europa game. Jon Flanagan will start if he fails to recover with Nathaniel Clyne switching flanks. Jordan Henderson was replaced at Old Trafford because of illness and the Reds skipper will have a late test, although he is expected to recover in time. Lucas Leiva (thigh) is targeting a return after the international break and James Milner will serve a one match ban following his sending off at Selhurst Park.
Newcastle United – vs – Sunderland
Fabricio Coloccini is yet to train but that won’t stop Rafa Benitez handing his skipper a late fitness test. Defensive partner Chancel Mbemba has trained though and a decision will be made on his overall fitness – likewise, Papiss Cisse who last played competitively in December. Steven Taylor “should be OK” after picking up a knock at Leicester. Paul Dummett has been ruled out for up-to a month with ANOTHER hamstring strain – that’s six within the last 10 months.
Duncan Watmore – ankle ligaments – and new signing Emmanuel Eboue – hamstring – are the only two injury absentees ahead of this weekends’ Tyne –Wear derby. Lee Cattermole (concussion), Jeremain Lens (Hernia) and Wahbi Khazri (knock) have all been passed fit with Jermain Defoe (calf) re-joining the first team in training on Friday.
Tottenham Hotspur – vs – AFC Bournemouth
Mousa Dembele and Christian Eriksen were rested in the Europa League but should return fully refreshed on Sunday. Ben Davies is a doubt due to mild concussion although that won’t be a huge worry as Danny Rose was expected to start anyway. However, Eric Dier – who picked up a knock against Dortmund – is a concern. Clinton N’Jie and Jan Vertonghen are the only players definitely missing through injury but both are on the road to recovery and could be back in April.
Junior Stanislas is still nursing a sore hamstring and won’t feature. Harry Arter (Achilles) will face a late test but regardless Eddie Howe is unlikely to make wholesale changes after his sides’ third successive win. The well-earned three-points against Swansea almost guarantees their top flight status and with it Callum Wilson and Tyrone Mings will have their chance to grace the Premier League again after injury cruelly ended their season back in September.
Manchester City – vs – Manchester United
Kevin de Bruyne, Samir Nasri and Fabian Delph are pencilled in for a return after the international break with the trio expected to play in a behind-closed-doors friendly next week. City progressed in the Champions League on Tuesday but it came at a cost as Vincent Kompany limped off after just five minutes. Pellegrini optimistically puts a four-week timeline on his return while national team coach Marc Wilmots says it could be double that. There are concerns over Nicolas Otamendi after a kick forced him off against Dinamo Kyiv. Although the defender is now running, a decision on his involvement won’t be made until the last minute.
Ander Herrera was rested as a precaution after feeling tightness in his groin during the build-up to Thursday’s Europa League game but the Spanish midfielder should return to the squad. Bastian Schweinsteiger continues to build his fitness as he edges closer to a start. Meanwhile, Antonio Valencia played his first competitive game since October against Liverpool but his involvement in the derby just three days later hangs in the balance. Cameron Borthwick-Jackson is training with the main group and could make the match-day squad. Ashley Young, Phil Jones, Luke Shaw and Wayne Rooney all remain on the sidelines.