Nick Albert

Six questions for the weekend

Titles, promotion, play-off spots, relegation - this weekend will decide the fate of many clubs as the EFL draws to a close and the Premier League serves up its penultimate round of fixtures.

Premier League: Rodgers/Benitez to help/hinder old club?

It looks as if Liverpool will need a helping hand from somewhere if they’re to end nearly three decades without a league title. Will that come in the shape of former Reds boss Brendan Rodgers who takes his revitalized Leicester to Man City on Monday?

The Foxes have taken 16 points from the eight games the Northern Irishman has presided over, a record only bettered by the two teams contesting the championship. Can Rodgers, so close to winning the title himself at Anfield, do his former employers a favour by ending City’s run of 12 straight wins?

Course, this could all be irrelevant if Rafa Benitez’s Newcastle stop Liverpool in their tracks on Saturday night. The Magpies were the last side to take points from City before their sequence of successive victories and should they raise their game once more, Rafa could be the man to end Liverpool’s title dream once and for all. He couldn’t, could he?

Premier League title race: Key fixtures

Saturday: Newcastle vs. Liverpool (19:45)

Monday: Man.City vs. Leicester (20:00)

Premier League: Can Cardiff win to stay alive for one more week?

Cardiff are four points adrift of safety and face Crystal Palace in their final home game. And the objective is a straightforward one: take all three points to take survival to the final weekend. Anything less and it’s curtains for the Bluebirds after just one season back at this level.

Palace have safety secured and little else other than eleventh place to play for - what Neil Warnock would give for that scenario - and the cynics may well point to the prospect of Palace seeing fierce rivals Brighton sweat on their status a little while longer.

But Roy Hodgson has his side playing a refreshing style of counter attacking football away from home. With six wins from the last nine under their belts - most notably at City and most recently at Arsenal - Palace own the sixth best away record which doesn’t translate to an easy task for the hosts.

Six Questions For The Weekend

Last weekend's defeat at Fulham leaves Cardiff needing a miracle

Championship: Who will secure final play-off berth?

One playoff spot remains and there are three contenders to fill it. Current occupants, Derby County, hold the advantage being a point ahead of Middlesbrough and two in front of Bristol City in eighth.

However, they have arguably the toughest of the final fixtures, at home to confirmed play-off contender West Brom who could still steal in ahead of Leeds in third and avoid a Midlands derby with rivals Aston Villa, with three points.

Any slip-up from the hosts at Pride Park and one of Middlesbrough, away at already relegated Rotherham, or Bristol City away at Hull, could well sneak in sixth. You’d expect one, if not both, to take advantage of fixtures against teams with nothing left to play. This said, nothing can be taken for granted, this is the Championship after all1

Sixth spot showdown: Key fixtures

Sunday: Derby County vs. West Brom

Sunday: Hull City vs. Bristol City

Sunday: Rotherham United vs. Middlesbrough

(All Championship games to kick off at 12:30)

League One: How will relegation dogfight end?

It has been some season in League One at both ends of the table. But the relegation battle, for some while featuring almost 12 of the division’s 24 clubs, has been a compelling watch to say the very least. And, still three of the four places need to be decided.

Going into the final round of games, Wimbledon, Southend, Plymouth, Walsall and Scunthorpe remain none the wiser of the division they’ll be in when next season swings around with three points separating the five teams.

Fingernails at the ready then for the supporters of each involved particularly at Home Park where Plymouth, winless in eight and manager-less since Derek Adams was sacked on Sunday, host Scunthorpe in a winner-takes-all clash.

Elsewhere, Wimbledon will head to Bradford, confident of getting the win they need to secure safety and the greatest of escapes, while Southend host Sunderland for whom promotion via the play-offs is the best they can hope for now.

League One relegation scrap: Key fixtures

Saturday: Bradford vs. AFC Wimbledon

Saturday: Plymouth Argyle vs. Scunthorpe

Saturday: Shrewsbury vs. Walsall

Saturday: Southend vs. Sunderland

(All League One games to kick-off at 17:30)

League Two: MK Dons or Mansfield for promotion?

Bury joined Champions Lincoln in securing promotion midweek leaving just one automatic spot to be filled. Incredibly, the two teams in contention, MK Dons and Mansfield face off in the 46th and final round of games that will feel like a cup final given what’s at stake.

Both locked on 76 points, there’s barely daylight between the sides though a draw will see The Stags hold onto the third place they occupy courtesy of their better goal difference.

With neither coming into the pivotal clash in good form though (one win in five for MK and two straight defeats for Mansfield), it may well turn into a war of attrition.

League Two: Can Sol secure survival?

Sol Campbell’s first foray into management has been far from easy. But Macclesfield Town, bottom when Campbell took over, are still alive and kicking.

They’re arguably favourites to stay up, ahead of Notts County who need to collect all three points at Swindon and rely on The Silkmen not winning, to avoid losing their football league status for the first time in their history. Town host Cambridge, one place and three points above but with safety assured.

The former England international has won it all in the game but can he keep Macclesfield up for what will surely go down as one of his best achievements yet?

To stay in the Football League: Key fixtures

Saturday: Macclesfield vs. Cambridge

Saturday: Swindon vs. Notts County

(All League Two games to kick-off at 15:00)

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Nick Albert

Weekend Preview: What to look out for

From title fights to promotion and relegation battles, here's what to look out for this weekend across England's top four leagues.

A real Super Sunday

I’ve lost count of how many times first place in the Premier League has changed hands this season (postcards are welcome with the answer). In all seriousness though, it has been a title race to remember, with twists, turns and some majestic football played by both Liverpool and Man City, along the way.

With each playing on the same day, one after the other and live on Sky, Sunday really is deserving of the ‘Super’ on this occasion. First up, City head to Palace. The South London side, responsible for the only blotch on City’s otherwise perfect home record, will be out to record a famous double over the Champions.

Challengers to their crown, Liverpool, host Chelsea straight after in a mouthwatering clash at Anfield. Worse-case scenario they’ll need to win to reclaim top spot but should City slip-up once more against Palace, then we could be looking at Liverpool extending their lead to four and, at best, five points with just a few weeks of the season left.

Premier League survival fight could become clearer

We’ll know a lot more about the occupants of the final relegation spot after this weekend’s round of games that’s for sure. 18th currently are Cardiff - they’re away at Burnley, realistically needing a result to remain in contention.

I say this as you’d expect one of Southampton and Brighton - five points above the Bluebirds and with a vastly superior goal difference - to take points from their mid-table opponents (Wolves and Bournemouth).

You could say Cardiff’s destiny is still in their own hands with games to play against teams in and around them. But taking nothing points wise from Turfmoor or their re-arranged midweek clash away at fellow strugglers Brighton, could leave the Bluebirds with too big a gap to close.

Premier League: Key relegation games

Sat: Brighton vs. Bournemouth (15:00)

Sat: Burnley vs. Cardiff (15:00)

Sat: Southampton vs. Wolves (15:00)

Tues: Brighton vs. Cardiff (19:45)

Crunch games in The Championship

Where do we start with the league many consider to be the best league in the world? (Or is that just my opinion?)

Finally, it looks as if the three into two is now two into one with Norwich having peeled away from Leeds and Sheffield United to hold a six point advantage at the top. The Canaries may have the chance to further increase their lead at Wigan on Sunday if Leeds fail to beat in-form Sheffield Wednesday at Elland Road on Saturday evening.

Sheffield United, heavily fancied to see off Millwall at Bramall Lane, will be hoping their fierce city rivals can do them a favour by stopping Leeds.

Norwich City

On the up? Norwich are close

With West Brom looking dead certs to end up fourth, there are six contenders for the two play-off spots remaining, two of whom, Aston Villa in 5th and Bristol City in 6th, play each other on Saturday.

Hosts Villa are in red hot form having won their last seven but Lee Johnson’s side can’t be written off after recent wins at Sheffield United, Middlesbrough and at home to West Brom.

Middlesbrough, Derby, Hull City and Sheffield Wednesday make up the chasing pack. 'Boro are faced with the prospect of being leapfrogged by Hull should they lose to the Tigers in their 3 o’clock meet at the Riverside on Saturday.

One almighty relegation scramble in third tier

You’ve probably come across the state of the League One table of late, for its sheer ridiculousness. With five rounds of games still to go for most, we’re still none the wiser as to who the four relegated teams will be.   

Walsall in 23rd are just six points from the mid-table mediocrity of 13th occupied currently by Gillingham. If we say Bradford have given themselves too much to do at this stage, there are still ELEVEN clubs in danger of falling through that dreaded trap door.

One standout game down there will see Wycombe, winless in 12 and seemingly in free fall, head to Roots Hall, where Southend, themselves without a win in 13, lie in wait with their new manager Kevin Bond. Accrington vs. Walsall is also one to keep an eye out for - both are winless in five and in dire need of points.

League One: Key relegation games

Accrington Stanley vs. Walsall (15:00)

Bristol Rovers vs. Bradford City (15:00)

Gillingham vs. Shrewsbury (15:00)

Southend vs. Wycombe (15:00)

Lincoln sealing promotion

The Imps were in the non-league wilderness just two years ago. But they’ll have opportunity to secure promotion to the third tier for the first time this century, should they record a 24th league win on Saturday.

Cheltenham will play the role of potential party poopers at a packed Sincil Bank with fans getting ready to celebrate a second promotion in three seasons. The taking of all three points at closest rivals MK Dons last weekend leaves Lincoln nine points ahead of third with five to play and, crucially, eleven points ahead of fourth.

A win will seal a historic day for a club on the up but even if they fail with their first bite of confirming the inevitable, Danny Cowley’s men could even have promotion confirmed if their fellow promotion rivals all drop points. Champagne bottles at the ready!

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Nick Albert

England: On Southgate's radar

Qualification for Euro 2020 begins next week for England with a double header against Czech Republic and Montenegro. Here are some of the names in the frame for Gareth Southgate's first squad of 2019.

Declan Rice

Having rejected an international career in the wilderness with Ireland, the path is now clear for the West Ham starlet to turn out in the white of England.

At just 20, Rice has become a permanent fixture in Manuel Pellegrini’s starting XI after coming on and leaps and bounds at the Olympic Stadium. And with Southgate seemingly not sold on Dier or Henderson in the defensive midfield role, the youngster looks set to be given the chance to make the position his own.

A wise head on young shoulders, it looks as if Rice will be rewarded for a fine season and show of commitment with his first cap.

Aaron Wan-Bissaka

The Palace right-back is another player involved in a tug-of-war in regards his international side with DR Congo watching on to see if Southgate includes the Croydon born defender for the first time.

Bissaka, capped by England at U21 level, has been a revelation for the Eagles this term. 27 starts tells you everything about the trust Roy Hodgson has in AWB who has taken the shirt from Joel Ward and consigned an experienced defender to a watching brief.

As we know, Southgate is his own man and won’t allow outside factors to influence his decision-making process. But with doubts over the form of Kyle Walker and Kierian Trippier for the RB position, coupled with Southgate’s insistence of picking players in-form, you have to think Wan-Bissaka will now get his chance.

James Ward-Prowse

After almost 50 appearances at England youth level, the Southampton man earned his one and only senior cap in 2017.

An eight minute cameo off the bench against Germany made the occasion far from memorable though and another call failed to materialise, unsurprisingly.

Precisely two years on however, Ward-Prowse has caught the eye of Southgate once more. The 24-year-old has repaid the faith shown in him by Ralph Hasenhuttl with several high energy performances and notably some end product. Impressively, his six goals - all since the turn of the year by the way - is the most by an English midfielder in the Premier League this season.

James Ward Prowse

After his weekend winner vs. Spurs, will be there be more cause for celebration for JWP?

Conor Coady

Captaining Wolves in the Premier League week in, week out in the Premier League has certainly helped people sit up and take notice of the central defender but the national manager has long been aware of Coady’s qualities through his appearances in various England youth teams.

At 6ft 1, 26 years of age and composure in abundance, Coady fits the bill for the type of defender the England boss prefers in his backline. Any concern as to whether the former Sheffield United and Huddersfield man could do it at the top level have been eased with a fine debut season in which Coady has played every minute of Wolves’ 30 PL games.

With injury and fitness concerns set to keep Phil Jones and Joe Gomez out of contention, the time seems right to reward Coady with a first senior call.

Tom Heaton

It was no surprise to see Burnley’s mid-season revival coincide with the return of their club captain between the sticks.

Heaton marked his return to the side with a clean sheet at home to West Ham on 30th December and hasn’t looked back since, helping to shore up a permeable defence with his calming influence and natural shot stopping qualities.

Let’s not forget, Heaton would’ve had a seat on the plane to Russia last summer had it not been for the shoulder injury which saw him fall down the pecking order at club level too.

Jordan’s Pickford recent error-strewn displays for Everton have cast doubt over the number one jersey in the short-term, a factor that is likely to see Heaton given the opportunity to add to his three caps.

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Nick Albert

Five questions for the weekend

New manager bounce for the Foxes and Fulham?

7 days, as we know, is a long time in football.

Just ask Claude Puel and Claudio Ranieri. Both were Premier League managers this time last week but now find themselves dumped on the managerial scrapheap.

Truth be told, neither dismissal came as a surprise; Leicester supporters nor the players never seemed to really take to Puel, while the man responsible for the demanding nature of the Kingpower faithful these days, Ranieri, failed to kick-start Fulham’s bid for survival and paid the price for coming off worse in a crucial midweek six-pointer with Southampton.

Over to the new guys then. Brendan Rodgers is tasked with lifting Leicester up the league having waived the chance of winning the treble treble at Celtic, while ex Fulham skipper, now coach, Scott Parker has been given a 10 game job audition at Craven Cottage.

Both will take on former clubs in their first game with Leicester heading to Watford and Parker’s Fulham welcoming West London neighbours, Chelsea. Can both get off to flying starts?

Will the Seagulls plummet further into trouble?

Brighton may have reached the FA Cup quarter finals for the second successive year but their Premier League status is in grave danger.

A run of seven games without a win has seen Chris Hughton’s side slide down the standings at some speed. The comfort of mid-table safety of just a few weeks ago has been replaced with an anxious glance over the shoulder at how close they sit to the drop zone (2 points).

A game in hand and a favourable fixture list ahead in which the Seagulls host the teams in and around them means it’s far from panic stations at the Amex just yet.

But Saturday’s home fixture with bottom side Huddersfield is shaping up to be Brighton’s most important in some time. Can they secure an overdue three points? 

Chris Hughton

Hughton last saw his side win on 29th December

Last chance saloon for Ipswich?

The Championship continues to throw up some stellar games with Leeds vs. West Brom and Aston Villa vs. Derby sure to catch the eye this weekend.

But the biggest game, arguably, is at the foot of the division where it’s surely all or nothing for Ipswich in their bid to avoid dropping into the third tier for the first time since 1958. This is it, as they say.

Paul Lambert’s ailing side, marooned in 24th place and with only 3 wins from 34, host Reading, three places and nine points above them. The game has been described as ‘massive’ by the Scot and he wouldn’t be far wrong. Win and Town cut the gap to six points. Lose however, and it’s curtains. 

Lambert can take a small crumb of comfort from a run of three consecutive draws. But draws are no longer good enough. Can Ipswich spark one of the great escapes?

County to close the gap?

At the very bottom of the entire football league, crisis club Notts County are staring into the abyss.

They may be the oldest league club in the world and one of the original founders of the EFL but anything other than three points on Saturday and all likelihood they’ll be crashing out of it for the first time in their history.

Port Vale, hovering just outside the drop zone five points above County, are the visitors to Meadow Lane and arrive having lost the last four.

A win for Neal Ardley’s side and they could climb off the bottom for the first time in a long time. Defeat they dare not consider. What will the table look like come 16.50 on Saturday?

Salford to stop the rot?

There appeared no stopping Salford City’s rapid climb up the football pyramid earlier this season. The class of ’92 owned club looked destined to cap a remarkable rise with promotion to the EFL following a blistering start to their first season at this level.

A sequence of 20 games unbeaten saw Salford top the table and emerge as serious promotion contenders. However, 4 defeats on the spin pre-Christmas and just two victories from the next seven and City are now clinging onto a play-off spot.

Not even the addition of David Beckham to the ownership mix has done much to inspire - Salford went down 1-3 to Dover in what was Beckham’s first trip to the Peninsula Stadium.

Even after three straight defeats though, City's saving grace is they're still in the picture for automatic promotion. Only six points separates Salford in sixth to Wrexham who occupy top spot. Can they stop the rot and get back on track away at Ebbsfleet?

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Nick Albert

Five questions for the week ahead

Understrength Reds to make most of home advantage?

Tuesday night under the Anfield lights promises to be another huge European occasion for Liverpool who entertain Bayern Munich in their mouthwatering last-16 clash.

Home advantage proved the catalyst for Liverpool en route to last season’s final and the same pattern has evolved this year too; the Reds took maximum points against PSG, Crvena Zvezda and Napoli to inch their way over the qualification line.

It’s just as well though - three defeats on the road left Jurgen Klopp’s side in real danger of exiting the competition before it had really begun!

With that in mind, you think the Reds will need to take an advantage of some sort to the Allianz? If they are to continue their winning streak at home, they’ll do so without captain and defensive linchpin Van Dijk though - he’s suspended.

League One title race to hot up?

The winning machine that is Luton Town have surged to the League One summit and on current form, The Hatters are a good bet to a secure a second successive promotion.

However, chasing pack Barnsley, Portsmouth and Sunderland can all gain ground on the leaders with home fixtures against mid-table opposition.

2nd place Barnsley, on an unbeaten themselves having not lost in 12 and with six wins in the last seven, can close the gap to three points.

But it’s Portsmouth and Sunderland, five and six points off the top two respectively, on the hunt for three much needed points; Pompey are without a win in six, while the Mackems have drawn seven of the last ten.

Can all three win to close the gap?

Quad on?

Will Manchester City sweep up this season and win the lot? The quadruple has been English football’s impossible dream for some while now and this week will certainly shed more light on answering the above question.

As well as learning of their FA Cup Quarter final opponents, City head to Germany for the first leg of their Champions League Last 16 tie. They’ll then try to get their hands on a fourth league cup trophy in six seasons and the first leg of a possible quad by inflicting more misery on Chelsea on Sunday.

The same day, the destiny of the Premier League crown could also take a major swing in favour of Pep’s history chasers with closest challengers Liverpool up to play a rejuvenated Man United at Old Trafford.

A defining seven days for City.

Man City

Arsenal to bite back vs. BATE?

The annual Arsenal malaise continued in Belarus last week with the Gunners unable to find their way past Burger King loving BATE Borisov in the first leg of their round-of 32 tie.

The comfortable victory many anticipated failed to materialize for Unai Emery’s side who now have a deficit to overturn ahead of the second leg at the Emirates.

In truth, the Gunners could have put this tie to bed and were guilty of spurning several chances against the best from Belarus, who, even more embarrassingly for Arsenal, hadn’t played a competitive match since December.

Fortunately, Arsenal get a second bite at BATE but what will they serve up on Thursday?

Fight or flight on Friday for Fulham?

Fantasy Premier League lovers up and down the land will rejoice on Friday as the Premier League returns after a two-week break.

The end of the working week sees two fixtures with Cardiff hosting Watford and Fulham heading to the Olympic Stadium to take on West Ham.

Eight points from safety, the games are beginning to run low for miracle worker Claudio Ranieri to conjure another managerial masterclass. If the Cottagers are to escape trouble, they need to be taking points in games such as this against an inconsistent and erratic Hammers team.

Two away points all season long doesn’t bode well but this is surely a must-not lose ahead of a gigantic six-pointer at Southampton next week.

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