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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Nick Albert

Five questions for the week ahead

Ole’s exploits to extend to Champions League too?

A sense of dread flowed through the veins of the Old Trafford hierarchy when PSG were revealed as Man United’s Last 16 opponents back in December. Just how would a lifeless team bereft of confidence and belief deal with Neymar and co.?

Simple. Remove the source of the problem - Jose Mourinho’s departure was announced just 24 hours after the draw incidentally - and replace him with a club legend.

The move couldn’t have worked out any better if they tried. 11 wins from 12 games in the league and cup has transformed United’s season to the point where they now are heavily fancied to get the better of the French Champions.

No Neymar and (potentially) no Cavani just adds to the intrigue of this tie - will the feel good factor created by OGS carry United through to the Champions League Quarter Finals?

Streetwise Spurs to keep up run? 

No Kane. No Alli. No problem for Spurs.

Ok this isn’t entirely true since Pochettino saw his side slide out of two domestic cup competitions in the space of four days.

But they still remain in contention for an, albeit unlikely, Premier League title following four straight wins, a run which sees them in good shape ahead of entertaining Dortmund on Wednesday.

Son and Eriksen have stepped up in Spurs' hour of need to leave the prospect of lining up without Kane and Alli not as daunting as it did initially. Can the influential pair maintain their impressive league form to keep Spurs in the hunt on the European stage too?

In-form ‘Boro to be blunted? 

Finally, Middlesbrough are starting to show some sign of life in the Championship promotion shake-up. An erratic December threatened to de-rail ‘Boro’s bid for the play-offs but Tony Pulis has managed to turn the tide to preside over an unbeaten run of six.

Next up though, he takes his side to Brammall Lane for a genuine six pointer: win and they close the gap on 3rd place Sheffield United to a point, lose and the difference is seven.

‘Boro will be buoyed by the Blades surrendering a 3 goal lead to Aston Villa on Friday night and will be hoping for Chris Wilder’s team to show more nerves as the race for the Premier League intensifies in a busy midweek Championship programme.

Can Chelsea win or even score away?

Following their humiliating defeat at the Etihad, Chelsea’s season is in danger of spiraling out of control. And if Mauricio Sarri refuses to change his ways then he’ll soon be out of a job.

That’s the short and fall out of it as the Blues head to southern Sweden to take on Malmö in the Europa League. A reaction of some sort, or, you know, even a goal away from home is needed to appease Chelsea supporters fast becoming frustrated at the lack of flexibility in the Italian’s methods.

It’ll be tough though. Malmö are busy preparing for their domestic season and can point to an impressive double over Besiktas in the group stage as an indicator of their ability to beat the bigger boys. Will the Swedish outfit inflict more misery on Blues fans?

Sarri

Could time soon be up for Sarri?

Will defensive frailties haunt Arsenal further still?

The Gunners last clean sheet came just a few weeks ago at home to Chelsea but as alluded to above, this is no mean feat currently.

The fact of the matter is Arsenal don’t really deal in clean sheets. Their perennial shaky backline was on show and horribly exposed at Southampton, Man. City and especially Liverpool when the defence folded as quick as a pack of cards.

Even shutting out basement side Huddersfield for 90 minutes at the weekend proved impossible. They may have managed to shut out relative unknowns in the EL group stage but Thursday’s opponents BATE represents a step-up in a competition which only gets harder from here on in.

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Nick Albert

Weekend Winners and Losers

Following another weekend of thrills and spills, here are the winners and losers from across England’s four divisions.

Declan Rice ⬆️

It’s been quite a couple of weeks for Declan Rice. Having ended all doubt regarding his future by signing a bumper 5 and a half year contract just after Christmas, the West Ham starlet delighted team-mates and Hammers fans alike by hitting the winning goal at home to Arsenal in Saturday's lunchtime kick-off.

He had already threatened Bernd Leno’s goal prior to the half time whistle, missing the target with a close-range header. However, the 19 year-old made no mistake shortly after the break, curling expertly past the German into the top corner for his first senior goal.

Cue wild celebrations at the Olympic Stadium as a clearly jubilant Rice was mobbed by his teammates who had been giving the holding midfielder a fair share of stick for his lack of goals so far!

Well, they can mock him no longer. With the winning goal, man of the match award and an upcoming 20th birthday to celebrate, Rice delighted the West Ham faithful further by heading down the pub with Irons fans to carry on the celebrating! 

Huddersfield ⬇️

David Wagner took his Huddersfield side to Cardiff knowing, realistically, only a win would see them with any hope of mounting a great escape. 

Although they managed a clean sheet and a point to stem a run of eight successive league losses, the same problem to blight their season was apparent once more as the Terriers drew another blank. In fairness, the league’s basement side were hugely unfortunate to be denied a penalty when Lee Mason pointed to the spot, only to then overturn the decision based on what his assistant had seen.

A sense of injustice perhaps but Huddersfield, for all their possession, appear some way short of the quality required to compete with the elite in England. 11 points and 13 goals scored in 22 games says it all and having failed to muster a win when they were most in need, the writing is now firmly on the wall for Wagner’s team.

Jarrod Bowen & Hull City ⬆️

Five consecutive wins has seen Hull spring out of the relegation zone to sit within just four points of the Championship play-offs. It was little surprise then to see Nigel Adkins named Manager of the Month for December but perhaps wasn’t so clear, was how this would affect Hull's next fixture given the award's tendency to act as a curse.

The Tigers aren’t one for shying away from a challenge though and instead notched up their sixth successive win. Against their Yorkshire rivals too. Striker Frazier Campbell rounded off the scoring but it was the goals and all round contribution of 22 year old Jarrod Bowen that proved decisive.

Having also been recognised for an outstanding December with the division's Player of the Month award, the youngster continued his fine streak with a further two goals, taking his tally to 13 in an impressive campaign so far. Not a bad time to be a Hull City supporter then! So long as they hang on to Bowen that is, the form of the former Hereford man hans't gone unnoticed by Premier League clubs.

Dean Smith & Aston Villa ⬇️

Villa sacked Steve Bruce and brought in Dean Smith in the hope of reviving a flailing promotion bid. As yet though, they’ve flattered to deceive under the self-confessed Villa supporter who admitted the defeat to an out of form Wigan on Saturday was the worst of his managerial so far.

With over 550 games under his belt, that’s a rather damning indictment of how Villa played and perhaps a hint of frustration that Villa haven’t yet kicked on during his reign.

They sit in exactly the same position (12th) as they did when Smith initially took over and having passed up the opportunity to close the gap, now have a mountain to climb if they’re to have any chance at all of reaching the play-offs.

Aston Villa

Luton Town ⬆️

Nathan Jones shocked many in the footballing sphere last week by turning his back on Luton in the midst of their promotion bid in order to take the reins just a few places up the football pyramid at Stoke City. Not only this, he did so before arguably the club’s biggest match of the season at Sunderland. Talk about timing and lack of loyalty!

Despite such adversity, the Hatters, led by former manager Mick Harford, caretaker manager while the club undertake the search for Jones’ successor, rolled up their sleeves to put in a performance full of mettle and show just why they’re serious contenders for a second successive promotion.

Portsmouth ⬇️

The smiles would’ve been wider still on the faces of the Luton players when they saw the score coming through from Fratton Park. Long-time leaders Portsmouth blew a golden chance to capitalise on their nearest challengers taking points off each other, going down at home to Blackpool.

Kenny Jackett’s men still the lead the way by four points but missed out on putting some clear daylight between themselves and their closest rivals. If Pompey’s promotion bid takes a turn for the worse, they’ll certainly look back at this weekend as a defining one.

Bury ⬆️

Scoring a goal in injury time to win a game 4-3 having been 1-3 down is one thing. But to do it against your promotion rivals and leapfrog them in the table is pretty special.

Losing by two with 20 minutes remaining, there didn’t appear much hope left for Bury. But a stunning comeback started by Dom Telford, continued by Danny Mayor and capped by Nicky Adams brought sheer ecstasy to those at Gigg Lane. Well, unless you were a MK Dons fans, of course!

The Shakers rose to second with their third straight win to close within three points of leaders Lincoln having played two games more.

Notts County ⬇️

English football’s oldest club are in grave danger of losing their football league status if they don’t turn around a desperate run of form which has seen them win just one of their last sixteen games.

County, now under the stewardship of Neal Ardley, their third manager of a chaotic campaign, could’ve closed the gap on their fellow strugglers to only two points had they beaten Cambridge at Meadow Lane in front of a bumper crowd of 15,000.

Instead, the prospect of The Magpies heading down into the National League is looking more and more likely following their latest loss. The gap to Cambridge in 20th is now eight points, while they’re still six points adrift of safety. 

To say, they need a miracle may be a bit excessive at this stage but if they fail to beat 22nd placed Yeovil next weekend, their 131 year-long stay in the EFL pyramid will soon be at an end.

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Nick Albert

FA Cup Third Round weekend: What to look out for

The FA Cup Third Round is always a standout in the football calendar with no end of drama guaranteed.

Here’s what to look out for from this weekend’s set of fixtures.

Dream tie for revitalised Tranmere

Mauricio Pochettino’s hunt for a trophy continues in another competition as Tottenham’s congested fixture list continues to churn out games. Following their New Year’s trip to Cardiff, Spurs are back on the road with a trip to League Two side Tranmere.

Having just escaped near financial meltdown by winning promotion to League Two and ending a three stay in the National League, there’s a romantic feel about play-off chasing Rovers hosting Tottenham under the lights at Prenton Park for a shot at one of the country’s best teams, as well as a big payday.

The game to kick off the weekend program is arguably the pick of the bunch.  And with Spurs expected to ring the changes given their demanding schedule, the upwardly moving hosts cannot be discounted entirely. 

Banana skin for fragile Fulham

Perhaps not a game that automatically stands out but intriguing nonetheless. Fulham’s focus has to be on Premier League survival but they won’t want the humiliation of going out the cup to a League Two side to further dent confidence among a delicate bunch of players.

As tends to be the case after sacking a manager, Oldham look to have a new lease of life and will pose a dangerous outfit for Claudio Ranieri’s side.

The Lactics have posted back-to-back victories under caretaker boss Pete Wild, who could write himself into Oldham folklore and become a genuine contender for the job on a full-time basis should his side make it three wins in a row at the Cottage.

Woking flying the non-league flag

Woking, of the National League South are the lowest ranked side left in the competition and fly the flag for the non-league sides (alongside Barnet) this year.

More often than not, the glamour ties tend to escape lower league sides but Woking boss Alan Dowson and a capacity crowd of just over 5,500 will be delighted at the prospect of welcoming Premier League opposition, by no means unbeatable in Watford, to the Kingfield.

The Cards are bang in form too. They’ve won eight of their last nine in the NLS including the last seven on the bounce to sit second, two points off the top with two games in hand.

However, the greatest performance in the club’s history is needed to overcome opposition six leagues above them. Watford are masters of overcoming similar situations having lost just once in nineteen cup games against lower league sides. The Hornets are also enjoying a fine season and will have half an eye on a good cup run this year given their safe mid-table position in the PL.

Woking

Will Woking be celebrating a famous result come full time at the Kingfield?

Robins to continue cup exploits?

It was in the League Cup Bristol City saw off four Premier League teams on their way to the semi-finals last season. They landed 4/5 home ties then and their luck’s in again with Huddersfield the next potential scalp for Lee Johnson’s men at Ashton Gate.

The hosts have managed to turn their season round of late thanks to an unbeaten run of eight, are now firmly among the chasing pack in the race for the championship play-offs.

In stark contrast, the Premier League’s basement side arrive on the back of 8 straight defeats, a new record low for the club. Their top-flight status appears to be slipping away and with a make or break game with 17th place Cardiff next up when league matters resume, it’s hard to see many of Wagner’s preferred XI being involved on Saturday evening. 

‘Tis the season for rotation 

After a demanding Christmas schedule, most Premier League sides that can afford such a luxury, will take the opportunity to rest those in need of a breather.

It’s a whole lot easier when you’re paired with lower league opposition too, as is the case with Manchester City (at home to Rotherham), Man.United (home to Reading), Chelsea (home to Nottingham Forest) and Arsenal (away at Blackpool) who will all apply an element of rotation to their respective line-ups.

Facing second string sides can take the gloss off a giant killing, yet it does at least give the aforementioned teams some hope against the big boys.

The potential for mayhem - VAR

Whether you're for or against it, from next season there will be a Video Assistant Referees (VAR) at each and every Premier League game. In preparation for this, it's going to be trialled in this years FA Cup. 

However, with all the technology involved, it will only be used in fixtures at Premier League grounds. Though this makes sense - you wouldn't expect non-league Woking to have the facilities to carry out such an operation for example - it comes away from the level playing field which makes this tournament special worldwide.

A Premier League team will have the luxury of being able to overturn a contentious decision through VAR, yet football league sides and potentially other Premier League clubs playing away from home won't have the same benefit, hence the title!

Staggered fixtures

Gone are the days of the traditional 3 o'clock kick-offs. This year sees a host of games starting at varied times with only 10 of the 32 fixtures in their usual Saturday mid-afternoon slot.

You may be thinking this means more games to watch on the box. But in fact, scattering the games over the weekend allows overseas broadcasters the chance to show the world's greatest cup competition at a more convenient time for them.

FA Cup 3rd round

Friday

Tranmere vs Tottenham (7.45pm)

Saturday

Bournemouth vs Brighton (12.30pm)

Burnley vs Barnsley (12.30pm)

Man United vs Reading (12.30pm)

Sheffield Wednesday vs Luton (12.30pm)

Shrewsbury vs Stoke (12.30pm)

West Brom vs Wigan (12.30pm)

West Ham vs Birmingham (12.30pm)

Accrington vs Ipswich (3pm)

Aston Villa vs Swansea (3pm)

Bolton vs Walsall (3pm)

Brentford vs Oxford (3pm)

Chelsea vs Nottingham Forest (3pm)

Derby vs Southampton (3pm)

Everton vs Lincoln (3pm)

Fleetwood vs AFC Wimbledon (3pm)

Gillingham vs Cardiff (3pm)

Middlesbrough vs Peterborough (3pm)

Blackpool vs Arsenal (5.30pm)

Bristol City vs Huddersfield (5.30pm)

Crystal Palace vs Grimsby (5.30pm)

Newcastle vs Blackburn (5.30pm)

Norwich vs Portsmouth (5.30pm)

Sunday

Fulham vs Oldham (2pm)

Man City vs Rotherham (2pm)

Millwall vs Hull (2pm)

Preston vs Doncaster (2pm)

QPR vs Leeds (2pm)

Sheffield United vs Barnet (2pm)

Woking vs Watford (2pm)

Newport vs Leicester (4.30pm)

Monday

Wolves vs Liverpool (7.45pm)

*UK times

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