Premier League and FA Cup semi-finals: 10 things to look out for this weekend | Soccer


1) City face rigours at business end

It has been a physically and emotionally draining week for Manchester City. Pep Guardiola says City are “in big trouble” due to injuries picked up in their triumphant draw at the Wanda Metropolitano after Kevin De Bruyne and Kyle Walker were forced off. Phil Foden spent most of the game sporting a bandaged head after a needlessly robust challenge from Felipe. Although some rejigging will be required for the second meeting with Liverpool in a week, the real challenge for Guardiola will be to refresh the team mentally for another season-defining match. The level of focus required at the Etihad on Sunday and in Spain on Wednesday will have been incredibly challenging for the players, many of whom played in both. An FA Cup semi-final is the kind of contest to sharpen the mind, although there will be no rest after. City face two games a week until mid-May so need to manage their bodies and minds carefully for the foreseeable. There can be no slip-ups. WU

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2) Klopp will not follow Simeone playbook

Those hoping the Liverpool-City rivalry might add a dimension of seething contempt to make it more fun for the neutral may get their wish through familiarity. Just six days since a match that had Alan Shearer and even Roy Keane drooling over footballing artistry, Wembley’s wide-open spaces and the prospective trebles and quadruples at stake may just add the requisite tension. Chuck in a heavy foul here and a questionable refereeing decision there, and the pot may just boil over. Not that Jürgen Klopp is likely to follow the Diego Simeone playbook: his focus is always on getting the best from his team rather than dragging the opposition down. While he may hand roles to Harvey Elliott and Roberto Firmino, benched last week, Caoimhín Kelleher – despite his Wembley heroics in the Carabao Cup – is unlikely to be goalkeeper, Alisson having played in the quarter-final at Nottingham Forest. The Brazilian’s expected presence reflects the competition’s importance to his manager. JB

Gabriel Jesus beats Alisson in the Premier League draw last weekend
Gabriel Jesus beats Alisson in the Premier League draw last weekend. Photograph: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

3) Chelsea target final send-off for era

Antonio Rüdiger’s post-match rage achieved instant meme status as Chelsea exited the Champions League. The German’s uncharacteristic slip had allowed Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema to steal in for the header that decided the tie. The Bernabéu is one possible destination for a player whose contract expires at the end of the season as time ticks down on the team funded by Roman Abramovich. César Azpilicueta’s contract extension may have been triggered recently but that may not preclude his departure and he, Rüdiger and Andreas Christensen are all linked with Barcelona, where free transfers are being used to rebuild. Were Abramovich still around, Thomas Tuchel’s future would almost certainly be in question but the four consortiums bidding to buy the Russian’s frozen stake in the club all appear to recognise his popularity with fans. Now the Champions League defence has gone, reaching the FA Cup final would allow the Abramovich era a send-off on a grand stage. JB

4) Gallagher robbed of big occasion

Football is full of silly rules that help the bigger clubs hold power over the smaller ones. For example, Conor Gallagher cannot play in an FA Cup semi-final despite helping Crystal Palace through each round to Wembley, purely because he is owned by Chelsea, a club that let him leave in the summer as they did not want to use him. They will not permit him to play. If Chelsea are willing to loan out a player, they should do so at their own risk. Gallagher has been a standout performer all season for Patrick Vieira, the manager helping improve him as a player, giving him experience and increasing his value. All of which help Chelsea in the long run. If Gallagher had been allowed to play and scored the winner for Palace, that is a danger Chelsea should have had to live with. Surely the point of sending Gallagher out is for him to experience big occasions and deal with them? WU

Conor Gallagher playing for England
Conor Gallagher has played at Wembley for England this season but will sit out Sunday’s semi-final. Photograph: Sebastian Frej/MB Media/Getty Images

5) Dier shows international quality again

Antonio Conte’s revamped and revitalised front three are earning plaudits as Spurs make a timely charge for fourth spot, but further back a foundation is being laid. Eric Dier has settled at the heart of a disciplined back three that has conceded five times in the past seven Premier League games (three of those came at Old Trafford). While Harry Maguire struggles at Manchester United, Dier is looking like an international footballer once again and should add to his 45 England caps in the near future. He may be the best English centre-back in the Premier League on form. Gareth Southgate likes to play with three centre-backs, so Dier seems an obvious choice. He is playing in the most successful club version of the same formation and the Nations League fixtures take place in June. Dier has already made 28 Premier League appearances this season; the last time he made more was in 2017-18, a sign he is finding greater consistency. WU

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6) Rangnick the latest United spare part

David de Gea, Juan Mata and Phil Jones are the survivors from the last Manchester United team to lose to Norwich, a 2-1 Canaries win at Old Trafford in December 2015. That United team ended the Premier League season in fifth, whereas the current side are sixth with very little chance of climbing to fourth. Louis van Gaal paid for fifth with his sacking. While Ralf Rangnick’s role was only temporary, United’s slump, taking in his inability to arrest Maguire’s decline or answer the Cristiano Ronaldo question, means his credibility as a future consultant to the owners has been marked down. Rangnick’s response to last Saturday’s defeat at Everton was shrugging detachment, and he has also hinted he played no part in the recruitment of a new manager, expected to be Erik ten Hag. The German is hardly alone in becoming a spare part amid United’s fall from grace. Such dysfunction is now part of the package. JB

Ralf Rangnick at Old Trafford
Ralf Rangnick’s time in the Old Trafford spotlight is nearing an end. Photograph: Ash Donelon/Manchester United/Getty Images

7) Xhaka continues road to rehabilitation

“I understand that we will never be best friends,” was how Granit Xhaka described his relationship with Arsenal fans in a Players’ Tribune piece published on Wednesday. “I want you to know that whatever I do on the pitch, it comes from the right place.” That Xhaka has not lived up to expectations since his arrival from Borussia Mönchengladbach in the summer of 2016 is true. He is notorious for some injudicious tackling and a confrontation with home supporters in 2019. But he has also been backed by each of Arsène Wenger, Unai Emery and Mikel Arteta and is an idol back home in Switzerland, where there is bemusement at such pariah status. At St Mary’s, with Kieran Tierney out for the season and Nuno Tavares struggling to settle, it is likely Xhaka will be asked to reprise the left-back role he was given against Brighton last week. Such adaptability is what senior players offer their managers. JB

8) Home form has cost Watford dearly

This week Watford’s board confirmed their commitment to staying at Vicarage Road, the expansion to the 22,000 capacity a case of “when, not if”. There had been talk of moving to a purpose-built stadium at Bushey Hall Golf Club with a capacity of 33,000, but that appears at its end. On its day the old place, its corners now all closed off, can give off a buzzy, fun atmosphere and is pleasingly close enough to the town centre, unlike many new stadiums. Unfortunately, its chances of staying a Premier League ground are low and mostly down to the team’s ruinous home form. Roy Hodgson’s record of seven losses in 11 matches includes a total blank at Vicarage Road. Watford last won there against Manchester United on 20 November, losing every home game since. The likelihood of Saturday staging the latest chapter of Christian Eriksen’s Brentford fable seems high. JB

Vicarage Road
Vicarage Road in all its finery. Photograph: Nigel Keene/ProSports/Shutterstock

9) Almirón’s chance to prove he has future

Ryan Fraser’s injury against Wolves allowed Miguel Almirón a chance off the Newcastle bench. The Paraguayan has started only 13 times in the Premier League this season but has an opportunity to cement a place for the run-in. Against Wolves he was tireless, proving he can do the defensive side of the game required by Eddie Howe, having previously been a free spirit. Almirón made a real difference going forward, too, helping to create a goal eventually ruled out by VAR. Almirón’s agent has visited the north-east recently to discuss the player’s future. . The playmaker should use the games ahead to show what he can offer Newcastle in the long term, starting with Leicester’s visit. There will be no shortage of new arrivals in the summer. WU

10) Clarets need more from Weghorst

Wout Weghorst trudged off 11 minutes into the second half of Burnley’s defeat at Norwich last week. The Dutch international is supposed to be firing the Clarets to safety but has managed just one goal in 12 appearances since arriving in January. “I think – and it is a positive, but it is a strange thing to mention – Wout is almost too team-bound at the minute,” Sean Dyche said after the loss. Weghorst spent most of the game trying to control long balls and bring others into the game but it provided little to the team. Weghorst needs to be in the box to get on the end of quality crosses, something absent at Carrow Road. Burnley’s style is based on having a successful big striker. Without that their relegation may be confirmed far sooner than necessary. WU



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