Premier League Preview

Liverpool can be forgiven for getting a little giddy at the prospect of a first Champions League final in 11 years, especially when none of the current squad were involved in that night in Athens, but before any thoughts of a trip to Kiev at the end of May, there’s the business of cementing a top four finish and an automatic passage to next season’s Champions League. The Reds play host to a Stoke side seeking a first win since January and, after throwing away leads in their previous two games, on the brink of relegation. Jurgen Klopp is likely to change up the Liverpool starting XI ahead of the second leg in Rome, but with his midfield options so threadbare, he may have no choice but to start the three he has left in that part of the pitch; either that, or rejig the team to accommodate a different formation from the 4-3-3 which has served him so well this season.

If Liverpool take three points on Saturday, then Chelsea would need to do the same at Swansea later that day to maintain any chance of denying the Reds a place in the top four. The Blues’ immediate target is to first catch fourth-placed Tottenham and they could move to within two points of Spurs with victory. Antonio Conte’s side will be confident of doing so after an excellent fortnight which saw them collect two hard-fought away league wins and reach a second successive FA Cup final. Swansea were given a footballing lesson by Manchester City last week but by the time they kick off on Saturday, they could be a lot closer to safety if the teams beneath them drop points. Were they to win and neither Stoke nor Southampton do, Carlos Carvalhal and his team could surely breathe easy.

Are Tottenham going into another end-of-season meltdown like in 2016? There’s no shame as such in losing to the two Manchester clubs and taking a point at Brighton, but suddenly Spurs are peering nervously over their shoulders at Chelsea, whose recent upturn in form has reignited the race for the top four. The gap on their London rivals could be down to two points by the time Mauricio Pochettino’s side take on Watford on Monday night, but Spurs could hardly have hand-picked more ideal opposition. The Hornets have effectively achieved survival and they played like a team with no pressing motivation against Crystal Palace last week. They can enjoy being under no pressure at Wembley – will that play into Spurs’ hands or could Watford pounce on their opponents’ shaky confidence?

Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger have had quite the number of grudge matches over the years, but they are likely to face each other for the final time on Sunday afternoon when Manchester United and Arsenal do battle at Old Trafford. The home side look set to finish second in the league and their final four matches will essentially be preparation for the FA Cup final in three weeks’ time. The Gunners, meanwhile, will need a big performance in Madrid next Thursday to harbour any hopes of returning to the Champions League, having failed to capitalise on a man advantage for 80 of the 90 minutes of the Europa League semi-final first leg. One last Wenger victory over Mourinho, which he managed at the Emirates towards the tail end of last season, would at least send Arsenal to the Spanish capital in a good mood.

West Ham played far better at Arsenal last week than the final score of 4-1 might suggest, but with their top flight safety not quite secure yet, they won’t be overly enthused about facing Manchester City at London Stadium on Sunday. The champions’ two previous visits to the venue both ended in 4-0 away wins and a repeat of that score is rather plausible on the evidence of the hiding they administered to Swansea a week ago. The Hammers will know how the teams around them fared by the time this match comes around, so they could either be practically safe or in danger of being hauled back into the relegation coalface. They will be fervently cheering on the opponents of the teams around them to make them feel that bit safer before City rock into town.

Anything less than a fifth league win of the season on Saturday will see West Brom’s eight-year stay in the Premier League come to an end. The Baggies have enjoyed fine results against Manchester United and Liverpool recently, but surely those have come too late to stave off the inevitable. Newcastle have the chance to consign Darren Moore’s men to the drop at St James’ Park and will take no pleasure in doing so, having tasted the bitter pill of relegation twice in the last decade and with only the target of a top 10 finish to excite them. That they occupy such a luxurious position at the business end of the campaign is a massive credit to Rafael Benitez and his squad.

Derby matches always feel that extra bit significant, but the importance level of Saturday’s tussle with Bournemouth is off the scale for embattled Southampton, especially at St Mary’s. If losing to Chelsea in the FA Cup semi-finals last week was disappointing, throwing away a two-goal lead to end up with nothing against the same opposition just before then could be the day that Saints’ relegation was effectively sealed. Mark Hughes’ side have not been performing terribly, but a lack of cutting edge up front and concentration issues at the back are the rocks on which their season could perish. Also, the evidence all season is that they don’t respond well to pressure situations, and with just one win from their last 21 league matches, it’s difficult to have much faith in Southampton coming good when their top flight future is well and truly on the line.

Huddersfield’s home form has been enough to leave them tantalisingly close to survival and they know that one more win will surely banish the threat of relegation once and for all. They’re back at the John Smith’s Stadium on Saturday to take on an Everton side who, for all the criticism they’ve taken this season, could easily end the campaign in eighth, a scenario they would certainly have accepted when Sam Allardyce took over a 16th-placed basket case in November. The ex-England boss can’t seem to do any more to win over the Toffees’ fan base, though, unlike the man in the opposite dugout. If Huddersfield succeed in beating the drop, David Wagner’s hero status will go through the roof in that part of Yorkshire.

Burnley now know that seventh place is good enough for a Europa League spot after Southampton’s FA Cup loss and that’s where the Clarets looks set to end the season. If they better Leicester’s result this Saturday, European football will definitely be coming to Turf Moor in the summer. Sean Dyche’s men host a Brighton side who have probably done enough to beat the drop and who earned a good point against Tottenham in their last outing. Along with Dyche, Chris Hughton has done an exceptional job this season and if there is a winner either way on Saturday, that team’s supporters can properly enjoy the final couple of matches of the 2017/18 campaign.

Last week’s draw at Watford brought Crystal Palace ever closer to survival and if they beat Leicester at Selhurst Park on Saturday, Roy Hodgson will have completed a relegation escape job that looked most improbable when he took charge back in October. The Eagles had been performing admirably without getting points earlier in the spring, but two good results in April saw their fine displays being suitably rewarded. They certainly won’t baulk at the task of facing a Leicester side who, in all probability, won’t finish in Europe but won’t sink below 10th. Their failure to beat struggling Southampton at home last time out bore all the hallmarks of a team that are simply playing out a satisfactory season to its conclusion.

Had Liverpool not thrown away two points so carelessly at The Hawthorns last week, they would be in a position of knowing that victory over Stoke would guarantee a top four finish. That could still materialise this week, but the lessons from the past seven days have been patently clear – if the Reds are in a dominant position by the 80-minute mark, they ought not to get complacent. Banish any such wobbles and the club’s pre-season objectives will be met.