Arsenal begin a run of games against the last four domestic sides to beat them, while Darwin Nunez brings the chaos against Leicester and Frank Lampard’s Everton face City and Erling Haaland.
Game to watch – Brighton v Arsenal
Arsenal have passed pretty much every examination put before them this season and they go into the final Premier League game of 2022 with a five-point lead at the top of the table. But here comes another test of their title mettle.
A trip to the south coast on New Year’s Eve begins a devilish run of fixtures to complete the first half of their season. After Brighton come Newcastle, Tottenham and Manchester United. The last four teams to beat Arsenal in domestic competitions? Brighton, Newcastle, Spurs and Manchester United.
It is a schedule for this Arsenal side to relish. The World Cup break hasn’t thrown them off their stride if the 3-1 win over West Ham is any measure, a victory that was achieved in the absence of their leading striker.
Granted, it was a ropey West Ham side which allowed Arsenal to come from behind but Gabriel Jesus’s injury doesn’t appear likely to give Mikel Arteta the headache he might have feared. Jesus’ replacement, Eddie Nketiah, got on the scoresheet, joining Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli. The Arsenal of old would have fretted over losing Jesus. Not this one, it would seem.
They will need all that buoyancy at Brighton. The Seagulls have a blueprint for beating an Arsenal side, albeit a second-string one, after winning 3-1 at the Emirates in the Carabao Cup last month. Their victory over Southampton on Boxing Day suggests they’re primed to push on after the break, with Roberto De Zerbi praising the performance as the best of his reign so far.
Brighton, though, will have to face the leaders probably without Alexis Mac Allister and certainly in the absence of the suspended Moises Caicedo. They will still cause Arsenal problems, but with each passing game, these Gunners look better equipped to deal with them and cause plenty of their own even in Jesus’ absence.
Player to watch – Darwin Nunez
The Premier League’s most Marmite player is must-watch at the moment. Whether you rate him or not, the chaos around Nunez is undeniable and unmissable.
Jurgen Klopp certainly rates him and that’s the only opinion the Liverpool striker will give the merest of sh*tes about. “The work rate he put in, the spaces he creates; he’s unstoppable in the moment,” said Klopp after the win at Aston Villa.
“Unstoppable” is certainly not how you would describe Nunez in front of goal right now. Back from a goalless World Cup with Uruguay, the £85million striker has missed a bucketload of chances in games at Manchester City and Villa.
No player has missed more Big Chances in the Premier League this season than Darwin Núñez (12). 🙃
— Squawka (@Squawka) December 26, 2022
Klopp and Liverpool fans are taking the view that missing chances is better than not having them, and they may be right. Perhaps against Leicester on Friday night, Nunez will get his eye in and go on a rampage against a defence that was picked apart almost at will by Newcastle on Boxing Day.
Sooner rather than later would certainly be preferable for Klopp. And with Cody Gakpo incoming, despite his manager’s assurances, a goal or two would doubtless settle Nunez before his drought becomes trickier to brush over.
Team to watch – Wolves
As introductions to the Premier League go, winning away from home in the 95th minute would take some beating. Wolves haven’t experienced a bundle like the one that took place in the corner of Goodison Park for an awfully long time.
How much of that triumph was down to Julen Lopetegui, it remains unclear. Not that the new boss will care in the slightest. In Wolves’ predicament – they were bottom at the start of Boxing Day – points are what matter, and the momentum such a dramatic change in fortune can prompt.
But there was some evidence of Lopetegui’s influence at Everton. He made the call to play Joao Moutinho in a more advanced role, picking Joe Hodge for his first Premier League start of the season alongside Ruben Neves. His subs paid off too, with Matheus Nunes involved in Rayan Ait-Nouri’s winner and Toti helping to repel the crosses flung towards Wolves’ box.
Wolves’ home support will get its first glimpse of the new Old Gold on Saturday lunchtime when Manchester United arrive at Molineux, where Lopetegui’s side have lost their last three, to Arsenal, Brighton and Leicester. The Spaniard may still be stamping his mark but we can expect to see a very different Wolves against the resurgent Red Devils.
Manager to watch – Frank Lampard
Unfortunately for Lampard, it was very much the same old Everton that succumbed to Wolves on Boxing Day.
The Toffees weren’t awful upon their return to Premier League action, at least not as dreadful as they were before the World Cup break, which they entered on the back of being outclassed at home by Leicester and a pair of miserable defeats at Bournemouth.
But all the familiar failings were on display, with Everton soft through the centre and impotent in attack. The defeat and the manner of it left Lampard to forlornly plead with his side’s supporters for an extension of their patience. They got behind their team through the end of last season when Lampard’s men escaped relegation, but the Goodison faithful are entitled to expect those flaws to have been remedied by now.
It could get messy for Everton at Manchester City on Saturday if Lampard can’t muster a few quick fixes. Perhaps a trip to the champions to face Erling Haaland and his mates offers a form of respite for the manager, with little expected of the Toffees. Even less so after losing to Leicester, Bournemouth and Wolves. But Everton have to give the travelling support something, anything, to cling to if they are to heed Lampard’s call to ‘stick with them’.
European game to watch – Barcelona v Espanyol
La Liga restarted after the World Cup break on Thursday evening, but the top two don’t resume their title bids until Friday, in Real Madrid’s case, and Saturday, when Barcelona host the Catalan derby.
Barca come out of the hiatus with a two-point lead over Real as they go in search of a first La Liga title since 2019, one that the club and Xavi so badly need. “La Liga is the absolute priority,” president Joan Laporta said in recent weeks, which is obvious since the Champions League is now off the table.
Barca’s title push has been largely forged on the back of Robert Lewandowski’s goals – 13 in 14 league games so far – but the leaders will have to find a way to cope without the Polish hitman, who begins a three-match suspension on Saturday lunchtime.
EFL game to watch – Norwich v Reading
The New Year periods offers a couple of Championship matchdays separated only by Saturday. Eight games took place on Thursday night, with four more completing the round on Friday.
That’s when we’ll get the first glimpse of a Dean Smith-less Norwich City, who host Reading with an interim management team presiding over a slipping squad.
Smith’s departure was inevitable. The atmosphere towards the manager had become so toxic that he had stopped his family attending games. “I don’t want to see my mother, a 79-year-old, windmilling people so I will keep them away,” said Smith after his last game, a late defeat at Luton, sadly ignoring the fact that the rest of us would absolutely love to see that.
Despite three wins in the last 13 games, Norwich still sit in fifth place, such is the absurdity of the second tier. But they linger on the same number of points as Paul Ince’s Royals and sit only three above 14th place. A post-Smith bounce is required with fourth-placed Watford due at Carrow Road on Monday.
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