With the FA Cup quarter-finals this weekend, there are only four Premier League games scheduled – but there’s plenty riding on those fixtures.
From the title battle to the race for the top four to relegation, the four games this weekend will have plenty of ramifications in all the key flashpoints in the league.
Here’s a look at talking points heading into the weekend.
LIVERPOOL CAN STEAL A MARCH ON CITY
Ever since they coughed up the seven-point lead they once had on Manchester City, the talk about Liverpool is whether they’d be able to do a better job as chasers rather than leaders. Yet that equation could change as soon as Sunday with City playing in the FA Cup this weekend.
A trip to relegation-threatened Fulham is an ideal fixture when their title rivals aren’t playing a league game, with the chance to go back to the top of the table there for Liverpool. These are the kind of opportunities Liverpool just can’t let slip.
They may be on a high after their exploits in the Champions League, but they can’t afford a European hangover. Beat Fulham, and it’s City who will have to be playing catch-up again. Even though they’ll have a game in hand, that could change the psychology of the title race.
CHELSEA TO TAKE POLE POSITION IN TOP-FOUR RACE?
Like with Liverpool and their chance to overtake City, Chelsea have the chance to at least move level on points with fourth-placed Arsenal, and overtake Manchester United in the process, when they face Everton this weekend.
Arsenal have a goal difference advantage of five and have scored 10 more goals than Chelsea, so ending the weekend in fourth place is an unlikely outcome for the Blues, but there’s no doubt that this is an opportunity not to be missed.
Chelsea have struggled on the road this season, with five of their six league losses coming on their travels, including some truly shambolic results – the whopping 6-0 defeat to City and 4-0 loss to Bournemouth come to mind. But Everton, who blew a two-goal lead to Newcastle last week, have had struggles of their own. There’s a reason they’re down in 11th place, and they only have the 12th-best home record in the league, neither fact reflecting kindly on Marco Silva in his first season in charge.
Chelsea can’t afford to drop points, and though Goodison Park is never an easy place to travel, this is a winnable fixture.
CONFIDENT NEWCASTLE CAN MOVE BACK TOWARDS MID-TABLE RESPECTABILITY
When you’ve beaten Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, then come back from two goals down to win against Everton, suddenly the confidence will start flowing again.
This was looking like a doomed season early on for Newcastle, as it seemed even Rafa Benitez’s managerial chops might not be enough to help the club pull off a relegation-avoiding campaign for a second straight season. But a win against Bournemouth will take them to 37 points, which should be enough to ensure safety.
And safety may not be the only goal for Benitez. A win would also keep the gap to Leicester City at four points, or perhaps reduce it if the Foxes lose to Burnley. Leicester are in 10th, so a top half finish is still within the realms of possibility for Benitez’s team – and what an achievement that would be given where they were at the start of the season.
BURNLEY GETTING DRAGGED BACK INTO RELEGATION BATTLE
Burnley went on an impressive unbeaten run between December and early February to seemingly pull themselves out of the relegation battle. But last week’s loss to Liverpool was their third in a row, and now they’re only two points above the drop zone.
Cardiff City, occupying the third relegation spot, don’t play this weekend, so when Burnley take on Leicester there is the chance of taking that gap back up to five and giving themselves some breathing room, even if their relegation rivals will have a game in hand.
Sean Dyche’s team have been one of the full-good stories in the Premier League in recent seasons, and having made it to seventh last season no one would have expected them to be struggling like this, even with the added Europa League commitments in the first half of the season. This weekend is an excellent opportunity to get back on track.
WEST HAM STILL AIMING FOR BEST OF THE REST
Speaking of that seventh spot, it is still a realistic goal for West Ham, who are only five points behind Wolves. Though Leicester are only a point behind, and Everton and Bournemouth two, it does seem like a three-horse race between Wolves, West Ham, and Watford, given the inconsistent form of the other three sides.
Huddersfield at home is the perfect game for West Ham to make up some ground after last week’s shock loss to Cardiff City, and cut the gap while Wolves and Watford are preoccupied with the FA Cup. If Manuel Pellegrini’s side can get that result out of their system, they’ll know the Terriers, all but relegated already, are there for the taking.
It would also be a good game for Marko Arnautovic to get back into form. The Austrian hasn’t scored in six straight games, having started the season on a tear. At some point, the disappointment of not getting a desired move to the Chinese Super League has to be put aside so he can get back to showing why a team is ready to pay that much money for him in the first place.
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Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri got his wish to avoid former club Napoli after the Italian side were drawn to face Arsenal in the quarter-finals of the Europa League.
Chelsea will take on Slavia Prague in the last eight following the draw in Nyon, which also produced an all-Spanish clash between Villarreal and Valencia.
The remaining tie pits Benfica against Eintracht Frankfurt, with the winner facing Chelsea or Slavia Prague in the semi-finals.
Arsenal will face Villarreal or Valencia in the last four if they can get past Napoli, with the first leg switched to the Emirates to avoid two ties being played in London on the same night.
Arsenal were forced to make the switch due to having the “lower priority” as Chelsea won the FA Cup last season.
The draw keeps alive the possibility of an all-English final in Baku, Azerbaijan on May 29.
Arsenal boss Unai Emery has already lifted the trophy three times with former club Sevilla and saw his side overturn a 3-1 first-leg deficit in the last-16 against Rennes on Thursday.
Chelsea cruised into the last eight with an 8-0 aggregate win over Dynamo Kiev, after which Sarri expressed his preference to avoid Napoli in Friday’s draw.
“I prefer to face them in the final. First of all, because it means we are in the final and I am happy with that,” Sarri said.
“And second, it means that Naples are in the final and I am happy. You know very well my relationship with the city, with the people. So, for me, it will be very difficult to play against them in Naples.”
The quarter-finals take place on April 11 and 18, with the semi-finals on May 2 and 9.
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Leicester boss Brendan Rodgers has backed Jamie Vardy to become a Premier League centurion.
The striker took his Foxes goal tally to 101 in all competitions with a brace in last week’s 3-1 win over Fulham.
He is on 74 top-flight goals for the club having scored 12 this season and he netted 24 times when the Foxes won the title in 2016.
Rodgers, whose side travel to Burnley on Saturday, is confident the 32-year old can make it to a top-flight ton.
He said: “Yeah, I would say he would do that. Absolutely. It’s 26 goals he’s got to go and he’s as fit as a butcher’s dog. As long as he doesn’t get injuries he’ll have a great chance.
“I don’t want to trap the boy into pressure. For me it’s getting him to enjoy his football and when you have that energy and happiness you produce good football.
“He’s 32 and if he’s fit and looks after his life – he’s a natural goalscorer – he’s going to give himself a chance. He’s such a good player.
“He is tactically very good. He knows the game, he’s got a real in-built brain for football. You sense that with him. He watches and studies the game.
“It’s great to have that. When you have got guys who love football it helps.”
Vardy would be the second oldest player, behind Ian Wright, to reach 100 Premier League goals having only made his top flight debut in 2014.
His early career took him to non-league clubs Stocksbridge, Halifax and Fleetwood before a £1million switch to Leicester in 2012 but Rodgers is not surprised it has taken him longer to reach the top.
He said: “Not really….he had other interests. Sometimes maturation takes a bit of time. Some guys don’t come into their own until a little later. Some fall out of love with football.
“I remember Charlie Austin at Reading, he was in the academy from 8-15, his mother and father gave him everything but then he was falling out of love with it.
“He went away, worked on a building site for his dad’s company and the next thing I hear there’s a boy scoring down in Poole.
“He went to Swindon and all of a sudden he flew. He had too much football maybe, didn’t want it, but then realised, ‘there’s an easier life here’.”