1) Premier League stuck in Covid quandary

At time of writing, five of the weekend’s 10 scheduled top-flight games have been postponed, but the Premier League has resisted calls for a “firebreak” suspension of all fixtures. Thomas Frank has seen two consecutive Brentford games postponed because of the surge in Covid-19 cases, and surely spoke for the majority of Premier League managers when calling for a full shutdown of fixtures. The clear and obvious problem is that more postponements now, heading into the intensely busy festive period, will ensure multiple headaches further down the line in trying to shoehorn rescheduled matches into the congested season. The Leeds manager, Marcelo Bielsa, has also expressed concerns about sporting integrity with several teams depleted.

Much as when coronavirus first hit in early-2020, perhaps there are no right answers – aside from the certainty that the safety of players, staff and supporters is paramount. With the Omicron variant “running like wildfire around the world”, as Frank said, postponing all of this weekend’s matches would appear to be a sensible measure. On the other hand, you can perhaps understand reticence on the Premier League’s part that it may lead to a longer shutdown. No one wants major disruption, but in no circumstance should TV revenue be prioritised if it means the virus spreading and lives being endangered. For now at least, 10 teams play on. LM

2) Gunners target away improvement

Could there be a more dangerous opponent than a wounded beast that has just shipped seven goals against the champions? Probably, yes – particularly as Leeds are down to the bare bones and will miss eight first-teamers when they host Arsenal, with Jamie Shackleton and the suspended Junior Firpo joining those already unavailable. Leeds badly need to hobble towards January and reinforce before this season runs away from them. In the meantime their opponents will smell blood and Arsenal, buoyant from a lively win over West Ham, have an opportunity to press home their top-four claims. Mikel Arteta’s side have lost successive away games against Liverpool, Manchester United and Everton; their home form has been solid but output on the road must improve. It could be a good chance for their frontline, looking perfectly capable without Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, to compound Marcelo Bielsa’s recent woes. NA

Leeds v Arsenal (Saturday, 5.30pm, all times GMT)

3) Newcastle can hurt City (no, really)

Just looking at the words Newcastle United v Manchester City is enough to make a person wince; City have won as many games this week as Newcastle have this season, scoring more goals in the past seven days than Newcastle have in the last seven weeks. Consequently, it’s hard to imagine anything but a thumping win for the away team, because it’s hard to conceive of a strategy that will stop them dominating possession and creating chances. Under Steve Bruce Newcastle would have sat deep, cluttering space while hoping for a counter or a set piece, and though Eddie Howe will not turn up his nose at similar attacking opportunities, that will not be the sum of his ambition. Assuming he sticks to his favoured 4-3-3 formation, he has midfielders able to get about the pitch and create moments that lead to goals. In front of them, Howe has attackers quick and physical enough to run channels, create chances, and worry City’s back four in possession. Don’t laugh! DH

Newcastle v Manchester City (Sunday, 2.15pm)

4) Conte should deploy Son and Kane

After almost a fortnight off, Tottenham should at least be refreshed; as Manchester City proved last season, the benefits of an impromptu winter break are not to be underestimated. But coming into a game cold has its downsides – all the more so if that game is against a steaming-hot Liverpool. Though they are nearer the end than the peak of their cycle, their familiarity, confidence and belief mean that even on a bad day, they are still too much for most teams. Antonio Conte will be well aware of this, so it will be fascinating to see what he has planned. If he sticks with his current 3-4-3 formation, it is hard to see Tottenham getting enough of the ball to do anything. Perhaps, just for this game, it is worth tweaking to a 3-5-2, the extra man in midfield giving Harry Kane and Son Heung-min greater scope to affect the game. DH

Tottenham v Liverpool (Sunday, 4.30pm)

5) The importance of Kanté to Chelsea

“He is there to scare the Everton bench, every time he stands up and I call his name,” Thomas Tuchel joked of the recovering N’Golo Kanté’s presence in the squad for Chelsea’s draw on Thursday. No one can have any doubt about the midfielder’s importance as he continues his progress towards a full return from a knee injury. In the end, Kanté stayed on the bench at Stamford Bridge as the hosts dropped two points, while Romelu Lukaku missed the game after testing positive for Covid-19 – a blow for the striker as he also works towards full fitness. Although the jury is still out on Lukaku’s significance, Tuchel needs both players back soon to help prevent the Premier League becoming a two-horse race. “The big advantage at the moment for Manchester City and for Liverpool, they have everybody available, and you can see that,” Tuchel said before the draw with Everton, which saw them fall four points off the title pace. LM

Wolves v Chelsea (Sunday, 2pm)

6) McGinn benefits from Gerrard’s arrival

Steven Gerrard knows better than most: win the battle in central midfield and win the match. He also knows he is on to a good thing at Aston Villa with John McGinn, an all-action box-to-box operator in the Gerrard mould. The former Liverpool manager did not exactly hold back in praising the Scotland international this week. “I love John McGinn, I love the person, the character, the player,” Gerrard said. “I’m the lucky one that’s able to work with him and try to improve his game.” For McGinn, working under Gerrard was always going to increase his capacity to boss games from the middle of the pitch and his form has been exceptional in recent weeks. If he can raise his already considerable goal threat and combine it with his usual range of passing and energy, McGinn will develop into one of the most complete midfielders in the division. LM

Aston Villa v Burnley (Saturday, 3pm)

7) Enforced break offers time for Rangnick

When Ralf Rangnick took charge of Manchester United, he doubtless eyed the 10-day break originally due for the period after Saturday’s game as an opportunity to inculcate and drill in his principles of play. Little did he know that a 10-year break might not be enough to get his squad to perform complexities such as thinking and trying, but at least he now has extra time to try. While his 4-2-2-2 formation has solved the team’s most pressing problem, conceding goals and allowing opponents to saunter through the middle of the pitch, this has come at a cost. United are struggling to create and score, because it compromises Jadon Sancho and Bruno Fernandes, their two most creative players. Both are good enough and intelligent enough to learn their new roles, but the feeling persists that Sancho is better going from out to in rather than from in to out, and Fernandes needs more freedom than has so far been afforded him. If Rangnick can resolve those issues, he will really be on to something. DH

8) Celtic injuries offer Hibs final hope

With Covid-19 cases yet to affect the Scottish calendar to the same extent as in England, an early shot at silverware is still on for Sunday afternoon at Hampden Park. Celtic are favourites to lift the Scottish League Cup and earn Ange Postecoglou the first trophy of his tenure, but the manager must contend with a raft of attacking injuries. Kyogo Furuhashi, Albian Ajeti, Giorgos Giakoumakis, Jota, James Forrest and Mikey Johnston are all battling to be fit, with Postecoglou expecting some, but not all, to be in contention. Mid-table Hibs are in the unusual position of playing a cup final under an interim manager, after Jack Ross was sacked 10 days before the game. David Gray will take charge, with the Belgium assistant Shaun Maloney the favourite to take over permanently. Putting a brand new trophy in the cabinet would be quite the start. NMc

Hibernian v Celtic (Sunday, 3pm)

9) Atalanta can stake Scudetto claim

A long weekend of football in Italy could help shape one of the most open title races in years. Internazionale, the defending champions and current leaders, should be able to see off the bottom club, Salernitana, on Friday night; then it is a matter of who can stay with them. On Sunday, Milan host Napoli in a meeting of two sides who flew out of the traps before stumbling. Luciano Spalletti’s visitors have lost their past two games, but would move back level with their opponents with victory. In between those two sides sit Atalanta, unbeaten in 10 league games and genuinely in the hunt for a first-ever Scudetto. They host José Mourinho’s Roma, who still seem one bad result from total meltdown, in a must-see match on Saturday. NMc

Atalanta v Roma (Saturday, 2pm)

10) Covid concerns for Ancelotti

Sunday’s derby win over Atlético put Real Madrid eight points clear of La Liga’s chasing pack, surprisingly led by Sevilla and their local rivals Real Betis. Atlético and Barcelona are even further back, trailing by 13 and 18 points, respectively. There seemed to be nothing standing in the leaders’ way, but a new Covid-19 outbreak could change that. Luka Modric, Marco Asensio, Gareth Bale, Rodrygo and Marcelo have all tested positive in recent days. Football results are, of course, a trivial concern amid the bigger picture, and Real Madrid should still have enough players available to fulfil and win Sunday’s fixture against Cádiz. After the Champions League redraw pitted his side against PSG, though, this has been an unexpectedly taxing week for Ancelotti. NMc

Real Madrid v Cádiz (Sunday, 8pm)

[Read More…]