1) Will Liverpool stick or twist against Man City?
One could be sceptical about Brendan Rodgers putting the brakes on Liverpool’s attacking verve as they prepare to play arguably their most important league game in 24 years, but striking a harmony between attack and defence will be crucial in deciding the outcome of Sunday’s match with Manchester City. To blitz or to balance? 4-3-3 or a diamond formation? Philippe Coutinho or Lucas Leiva? Coutinho was irresistible in humbling both Arsenal and Tottenham in their respective visits to Anfield but as Liverpool struggled last week against West Ham, Rodgers substituted him at half-time for Lucas at the base of a diamond formation and partly on that change, the game swung in Liverpool’s favour. Liverpool must go for the win against City, but Rodgers may decide that against the central pairing of Yaya Touré and Fernandinho, a Lucas-stick followed by a late Coutinho-twist in midfield is the most effective option.
2) Arsenal wary of fear factor against Wigan
The last thing Arsène Wenger will fear for Arsenal when they face Wigan is complacency. Moreover, it is fear itself. Having conceded 12 goals in their last four games, none of which they won, Arsenal’s prospect of beating a resurgent Wigan in their FA Cup semi-final on Saturday is looking less and less like a formality. Yes, Arsenal have a better team, but Wigan carry sufficient quality, and superior form and momentum going into Saturday’s evening clash to give the Gunners a shiver. Perhaps complacency was the reason for Arsenal’s defeat to Birmingham the last time they visited Wembley in 2011, or indeed why Manchester City crashed out at the hands of Wigan in the quarter-final. The thought of Arsenal not taking this chance to end their nine-year trophyless run is enough to strike that out of Arsenal’s players.
3) Will Mourinho risk a change to give Cole match fitness?
Ashley Cole may not have started a game for Chelsea since 11 January but with Branislav Ivanovic suspended for the Champions League semi-final first leg, José Mourinho could well decide to use Cole instead of the Serb this weekend against Swansea, with César Azpilicueta shifting over from left-back to the right. With Chelsea still chasing the title, Mourinho will be reluctant to shuffle the back four that has started the last 10 successive matches, but he may feel Cole needs match sharpness with the semi-final in mind, particularly against the kind of high-tempo passing style that Swansea are likely to use at the Liberty Stadium.
4) Norwich hoping Adams will reinvigorate Norwich’s attitude
‘Team spirit’, ‘belief’, and ‘confidence’ might all be abstract metrics that stay hidden from Opta data and league tables, but in the closing stages of a relegation battle, such things are often the difference between staying up and crashing out. Bradford’s survival in 1999-00 and Wigan’s escape in 2010-11 owed as much to these age-old buzzwords in the closing weeks of their respective seasons. Much of Neil Adams’s success as a youth-team manager with Norwich was based upon attitude rather than outright quality and in his first week in charge at Premier League level, he has already been banging the drum for improvement in this area. “We need people who are willing to give everything. That is the spirit, desire and determination these supporters deserve,” he said. Throughout the Premier League era, teams that should have been too good to be relegated but who lacked sufficient mental fortitude – Middlesbrough in 1997-98 and Newcastle in 2008-09 for example – have come unstuck. While many have questioned the timing of Chris Hughton’s sacking at Norwich, choosing Adams could be seen as a blatant attempt by Norwich’s board to inject some overnight gusto into a floundering side, much as Sunderland enjoyed with Paolo Di Canio last season. If a new-found attitude helps Norwich to a vital win at relegation rivals Fulham on Saturday, it could yet prove a canny appointment.
5) Allam has not stayed true to his word: he is still Hull’s owner
A month is a long time in football. In March, Hull chairman and owner Assem Allam told the Guardian: “If the FA does not allow our plan [to change the name of Hull City to Hull Tigers] we will walk away, put it on the market to sell the club.” However, having narrowly won an internal club poll on the issue, but ultimately having lost the FA Council vote over the rebrand, with no right of appeal, Allam has not walked. He has two remaining options: reapply next year for a name change or challenge the FA on a legal basis, with both likely resulting in the same verdict: no.
Close to securing their Premier League survival and as favourites to win their first FA Cup semi-final in over 80 years against Sheffield United this weekend, this is a club that should be celebrating its protagonists, masks and all. Allam has been a large part of Hull’s recent success, and many fans would have voted in the club poll in favour of the name change simply to ensure that he does not leave, taking the view that a rebrand is a lesser evil than a complete overhaul at the club. The results of this poll, a winning majority of just 48 out of a possible 15,033, appears to be the only thing keeping Allam at the club. “If it had been the other way round, if the FA had approved it but the fans had said no, I would have severed my ties with the club immediately,” he said on Wednesday. “But the results mean I owe it to the silent majority to appeal and to fight on.”
6) Ole registered the wrong Joe for Cardiff in January
José Mourinho may be guilty of wailing about his misfiring strikers the loudest, but with goals in general not a problem at Chelsea, the issue is being most keenly felt at Cardiff. Just one goal in the last nine league games dating back to the beginning of February has been scored by a Cardiff forward – Ole Gunnar Solskjaer persisting with alternating Kenwyne Jones and Craig Bellamy alongside Fraizer Campbell during that period. Following last weekend’s 3-0 home mauling to Crystal Palace, they are in desperate need of someone to step up. Joe Mason – on loan at Bolton – has scored five times in eight games in that same period and returns to Cardiff next week having completed his maximum 93-day loan. However, the 22-year-old was not registered by Solskjaer in the club’s Premier League squad in January – ousted in favour of fellow striker Jo Inge Berget, who has been given just 72 minutes (without scoring) since signing from Solskjaer’s former side Molde. Cardiff have five games to make up a six-point gap to 17th place, starting with a trip to Southampton on Saturday, but the Norwegian manager must be scalding himself over Mason’s omittance.
7) Probably three defeats, hopefully three wins ... and Everton
Currently seven points adrift of safety, Sunderland have seven games left to save their season. The most likely outcome is that they will get nothing from three of them – away trips to Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United – while a best case scenario of nine points from three of their home games – Cardiff, West Brom and Swansea – would surely not be enough to leapfrog their rivals come the end of the season. Put simply, anything but a victory this weekend against Everton – themselves chasing a record seventh consecutive league win that would propel the Toffees above Arsenal into fourth – would almost certainly see Sunderland relegated. One of Gus Poyet’s six league wins came at Goodison Park on Boxing Day, he must channel that festive spirit on Saturday if Sunderland have any realistic hope.
8) What effect will Pulis’s words have on Puncheon?
Inside Crystal Palace’s technical area, Tony Pulis’s heart is meticulously stitched on to the sleeve of his tracksuit top. Yelps of “penalty!”, “ref!” and baseball caps being flung to the ground in frustration are usually obvious indicators of what is going on behind those narrow eyes. Suited and booted in front of a camera, Pulis is often more cryptic. After Jason Puncheon inspired Palace to victory at Cardiff last week, it appears Pulis is trying to flog the winger. “If somebody comes in and makes an offer because Jason [Puncheon] is playing so well, we’ll look at that offer,” Pulis said on Thursday in the buildup to the home game against Aston Villa, seemingly inviting the head of one of his best players to be not so much turned, but yanked clean off and paraded in front of potential suitors. It seems a strange tactic to incentivise Puncheon to perform with a transfer but what other explanation is there? As someone who has galvanised Palace since his arrival in January, trust must be placed in Pulis’s actions and words, but it remains to be seen what effect this carrot-and-stick strategy will have in Puncheon, who has struggled with consistency all his career.
9) Where most do Newcastle need to strengthen?
In the last three games – all heavy defeats – Newcastle’s attack has failed to score a single goal, while their defence has shipped 11. After failing to replace Yohan Cabaye in midfield in January, everybody’s place is the team is seemingly up for grabs, with Alan Pardew keen to make summer additions. “[Mike Ashley] sees we need a bit of quality in the group, that the players are doing their best, but we do need more quality if we are going to impact the top of the league,” said Pardew. “It’s important that the squad is balanced and has a certain level of quality that represents this club. There’s no doubt after the loss of Cabaye that we need to add quality to this group.” A replacement for Cabaye aside, which positions does Pardew need to address most urgently?
10) The race for seventh heaven
How much have Tottenham fans enjoyed being in the Europa League this season? Has it provided opportunity for some of the team’s squad players to impress, or provided more unwanted game-time leaving their stars leg-weary as we enter the season’s final weeks? Currently in sixth and with a visit to West Brom on Saturday, Spurs look set for another Europa adventure next campaign, but fans could be forgiven for praying for seventh heaven – Manchester United lurking two points behind. And so we begin the worst game of cat and mouse ever: Tim Sherwood and David Moyes hoping for strong performances to ease the pressure on their jobs, but poor results in order for their respective clubs to secure that elusive seventh place.