London (AFP) – With the Premier League in the thrilling final third of the season, AFP Sport looks at five storylines to watch out for in this weekend’s action:
Can anyone catch Chelsea?
With a remarkable 17 wins from their last 20 league games, rarely has the phrase “runaway leaders” been more apt than when describing Chelsea’s seemingly unstoppable march to the championship.
Antonio Conte’s side, who make the short trip to London rivals West Ham on Monday, sit 10 points clear of second-placed Tottenham with just 12 games remaining, raising the possibility that the title race will reach its conclusion well before the final round of matches.
For the chasing pack, and fans of a thrilling finale, there have been dispiritingly few signs that Chelsea might stumble in the final furlong, although West Ham’s 2-1 win over Conte’s men in the League Cup earlier this season provides a glimmer of hope of another upset when the Blues return to the London Stadium.
Klopp must silence critics
Nothing encapsulates the rollercoaster existence of a Premier League manager better than the waves of opprobrium crashing down on Jurgen Klopp since Liverpool’s 3-1 loss at Leicester on Monday.
Heading into 2017, Liverpool were in such rich form that a period of sustained success appeared on the cards. But just two months later Klopp is under pressure for the first time at Anfield after two wins in 12 games — a dismal sequence that saw the Reds crash out of the FA and League Cups and fall 14 points behind Chelsea.
The only remaining goal for fifth-placed Liverpool is to qualify for the Champions League, which makes Saturday’s Anfield showdown with fourth-placed Arsenal a crucial moment for Klopp, whose overall points total from his first 55 games is less than the amount collected by his predecessor Brendan Rodgers.
Leicester back on track?
When Jamie Vardy raced onto Marc Albrighton’s precise long pass and drilled a clinical finish beyond Liverpool goalkeeper Simon Mignolet it was as though the previous eight months of pratfalls and personal agendas had never happened to champions Leicester.
In the first match after Claudio Ranieri’s shock sacking, Vardy was back to his best as Leicester, at last displaying the controlled aggression that carried them to that fairytale title triumph, ended a five-game losing streak with a 3-1 win over Liverpool.
Vardy and several of his team-mates have angrily denied claims they told Leicester’s owners to sack Ranieri, but with a point to prove, the Foxes, under the caretaker leadership of Craig Shakespeare going into a crucial clash with lowly Hull, finally have a cause that could carry them out of the relegation zone in the nick of time.
Cup won’t suffice for Mourinho
Fresh from Manchester United’s thrilling League Cup final success, Jose Mourinho needs the feel-good factor from that 3-2 win against Southampton to spark a push to qualify for the Champions League.
Despite becoming the first United manager to win a major trophy in his maiden season, missing out on Europe’s elite club competition would be a huge blow for Mourinho, who knows the same failing triggered the sacking of his predecessor Louis van Gaal.
United are two points adrift of the top four, in sixth place, but Mourinho’s men should be able to inch closer to their target if Wembley hero Zlatan Ibrahimovic inspires an expected victory over struggling Bournemouth at Old Trafford.
Spurs need more than Kane
If title hopefuls Tottenham are to make Chelsea sweat in the closing weeks of the season, Mauricio Pochettino’s side will have to find some support for Harry Kane, starting against Everton on Sunday.
Kane underlined his credentials as the Premier League’s most predatory finisher last weekend, netting his third hat-trick in his last nine appearances in a 4-0 demolition of Stoke.
But expecting the England forward to keep up that astonishing level for the rest of the season would be foolhardy, so Pochettino needs to tease more consistency from Dele Alli, who has only one goal in his last seven appearances, and Christian Eriksen, who hasn’t scored in the league since December, to ease the burden on Kane.
Fixtures (1500 GMT unless stated)
Leicester v Hull, Liverpool v Arsenal (1730 GMT), Manchester United v Bournemouth (1230 GMT) Stoke v Middlesbrough, Watford v Southampton, West Brom v Crystal Palace
Sunderland v Manchester City (1600 GMT), Tottenham v Everton (1330 GMT)
West Ham v Chelsea (2000 GMT)