Friday, May 14, 2021

Matchweek 36 Preview: Liverpool Shakes Up Top Four Race; Do Or Die For Hammers; Everton, Spurs Try To Hang On

Liverpool's 4-2 dismantling of Manchester United ensured excitement over the remaining ten days of the Premier League season. The race for Champions League qualification tightened substantially with Liverpool’s win at Old Trafford, Jurgen Klopp’s first at the hallowed venue and Liverpool’s first away win versus their rival since 2014. A brace from Bobby Firmino was sandwiched between goals by Diogo Jota and Mohamed Salah to account for the Liverpool scoring while Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford scored for Manchester United. Salah’s 21st goal ties him with Harry Kane for the league lead while Fernandes’s 18th of the season is more than all but the two league leaders. Liverpool’s victory was their fifth in an unbeaten run of seven matches which now puts them in the thick of the Champions League race.

Manchester United has fueled the Champions League race with successive losses this past week to Leicester and Liverpool. Liverpool travels to relegated West Brom this weekend with a chance to pull within one point of Chelsea for the fourth and final Champions League berth. The gap to third place Leicester would be sliced to three points with all three clubs having two matches and six points available to them. 

Chelsea had seemed to have things well in control and were in good form until a shocking loss to a poor Arsenal team this week. Should Chelsea be the odd team out in the final four race, the Blues would still have opportunity to qualify should they win this year’s Champions League final versus Manchester City later in May. Chelsea and Leicester play in the FA Cup Final this weekend before the two clubs meet again on Tuesday in a huge league match. 

West Ham has only the slightest of chances to finish in the top four after losing three of their last four matches. The Hammers face Brighton, a club which West Ham has never beaten in the league, away this weekend with Europa League qualification also at risk should the Hammers lose. West Ham can pull within three points of fourth place Chelsea with a win but are also only two points ahead of both Tottenham and Everton in the race for the Europa League places. Helping the Hammers’ chances as they travel to the south coast are the red card suspensions of Brighton defender Lewis Dunk and striker Neal Maupay. 

Everton, which failed to score in a damaging goalless draw with Aston Villa on Thursday, should have an easier task when it hosts bottom dweller Sheffield United. The Toffees, however, are in the bottom six of the league in home performance this season and are struggling for goals of late. Relegated Sheffield United has conceded six goals in their last two matches and have lost 11 of their last 13 league contests. 

Spurs, listless in last week’s loss to Leeds, will play host to Wolves this week as they seek to salvage something from their disappointing season. The north London side needs to win home matches against Wolves and then Aston Villa to make for a meaningful final day matchup versus Leicester. Wolves are playing better of late, winning three times and drawing once in their last five matches as manager Nuno Espirito Santo has reason to be encouraged by the performance of young players such as Fabio Silva and Morgan Gibbs-White.

Harry Kane has not scored in the last two matches for Spurs and has fallen into a tie with Mohamed Salah in the chase for the league’s Golden Boot. 

Manchester City will receive their honor guard when entering the field at Newcastle as the Citizens play their first game since clinching the league title. With safety in hand and Callum Wilson out injured, its questionable how much resistance the Magpies will present against the league champions who will use their remaining games to tune up for the Champions League final versus Chelsea. 

Leeds, who face Burnley at Turf Moor, proved again in their defeat of Chelsea last week that the Whites have not yet made their vacation plans. Marcelo Bielsa’s club have lost but once in their last eight league matches. A top half finish for currently tenth place Leeds would be an impressive accomplishment in their promotion season. Burnley, hosting Leeds in a topflight match for the first time since 1975, is winless in its last eight home matches. 

Aston Villa are a point behind Leeds in the table as the Villans host Crystal Palace. Villa saw the return of their long-injured captain Jack Grealish in their goalless draw with Everton and will have Ollie Watkins back from suspension against the Eagles. Defensively, however, Aston Villa will be without injured fullback Maty Cash while center back Tyron Mings could be a game time decision. Manager Dean Smith will hope for a strong finish to a season which has seen Aston Villa accumulate its highest point total in the Premier League in more than a decade. Crystal Palace have lost four of their last five matches amid swirling rumors on who will manage and who will play for the club next season as the Eagles have an enormity of expiring contracts, including that of their manager. The long dormant Christian Benteke has erupted for five goals in his last 11 appearances for Crystal Palace. 

Relegated Fulham travels to Southampton. While only Sheffield United have scored fewer goals than the Cottagers, Fulham will be facing a Southampton squad which has allowed the most goals in the league this calendar year and has recorded only one clean sheet in its last 18 matches.   

FA Cup Final

Over 20,000 fans are expected in the Wembley Stadium stands for the 140th FA Cup final on Saturday. Eight-time FA Cup winner Chelsea, which lost last year’s final to Arsenal, faces a Leicester club which is winless in its four prior trips to the finals. Manager Thomas Tuchel will be seeking his first trophy as Chelsea manager with opportunity to potentially add a second in the Champions League final later this month. A first FA Cup title for Leicester, meanwhile, would greatly enhance the resume of manager Brendan Rogers. The two teams are locked in a struggle for the top four in the league and face each other again in a crucial league match on Tuesday. In the meantime, the clash of top caliber teams in the final of the iconic English tournament, in front of returning fans, will be something for all to enjoy.

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