An even bigger testing period awaits Man United and other Wolves talking points

Matt Jones 15/03/2019
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Wolves welcome Manchester United to the Midlands in an FA Cup quarter-final tie that should be a cracking encounter on Saturday.

United will see a path to Wembley should the hosts be silenced, with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer surely seeing the famous competition as the most likely shot to earn silverware for a side he has transformed during three months in charge.

Wolves though are no pushovers, having drawn at Old Trafford in the league already this season. Ahead of the tie of the round, let’s consider the talking points:

CAN UNITED AND OLE HANDLE THE PRESSURE?

Solskjaer tasted defeat for just a second time last week against Arsenal.

Solskjaer tasted defeat for just a second time last week against Arsenal.

Just a month ago, United fans and critics alike were waiting with baited breath to see how Solskjaer would cope with his first proper test – an arduous quartet of fixtures against Paris Saint-Germain (twice), Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal in the span of seven games.

With wins at Chelsea and PSG, keeping a clean sheet at home in a 0-0 draw with title-chasing Liverpool and defeats to the Gunners and the Parisians – albeit an ultimately irrelevant one as they progressed to the Champions League quarter-finals nevertheless – you’d have to give the United boss an A- grade for his efforts, and those of his team.

But there’s no rest with another tough examination awaiting United in the next six weeks. In fact, the ensuing set of games may be even harder and require far more study in order for United to be successful.

Wolves, Watford, Wolves, Barcelona, West Ham and Barcelona are United’s next six fixtures – Nuno Espirito Santo’s side await in the FA Cup on Saturday and the league in two weeks’ time (both at Molineux). The Hornets are just a place behind Wolves in the Premier League in eighth, even though they should be swatted aside at Old Trafford.

United and Solskjaer will not need telling the two-legged tie against Barca is a mountainous task. And whatever the outcome there, there’s then the small matter of a trip to Everton and a home double against Manchester City and Chelsea in eight days before the end of April.

Ole’s at the wheel and has steered United through the gauntlet already. Another monumental test now approaches and it is an obstacle that could well break that wheel.

WOLVES SMELL BLOOD

Nuno Espirito Santo has led Wolves to seventh in the Premier League.

Nuno Espirito Santo has led Wolves to seventh in the Premier League.

Wolves are on their best run of the season having lost just once in their last 11 games in all competitions. The only defeat in that sequence was a curious 1-0 loss at the hands of Premier League cellar dwellers Huddersfield, while they come into this mouthwatering FA Cup quarter-final buoyed by almost pulling off possibly the result of their season at Stamford Bridge last week.

Santo deployed an ultra-defensive approach in west London and was almost rewarded – only Eden Hazard breaking their resistance with a stoppage time stunner.

Wolves were excellent when these two teams met earlier this season, deservedly earning a point through Joao Moutinho’s superb strike.

United had taken the lead through Fred but Jose Mourinho’s side were lucky to take anything at all from the game, having been second best for much of the afternoon.

They bossed possession against the visitors but Santo’s side dominated in terms of efforts on goal, raining down eight shots on David De Gea. Fred’s goal was one of just three United shots on target.

Mourinho has since departed and United are on a roll, having just overcome PSG to reach the Champions League last eight. But Solskjaer will expect a scrap with Wolves in order to progress.

Striker Raul Jimenez has found the net three times in his last four games and has seven in his last 10, lying sixth in the Premier League scoring charts. Moutinho is fifth in assists (seven), while only City, Liverpool, Tottenham and Chelsea have a better defensive record than the men from Molineux.

SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST

Rashford is in need of a rest and Lukaku is a doubt.

Rashford is in need of a rest and Lukaku is a doubt.

In the midst of the testing run that has just been passed with flying colours, it is glossed over just how impressive United were in obtaining victories at Crystal palace and at Old Trafford against Southampton.

Obviously the glamour fixtures are what fans looked forward too and United performed largely brilliantly in them. But with injuries mounting in the wake of the PSG defeat at Old Trafford, to go to Selhurst Park and churn out a pretty dominant 3-1 victory and then fend off a stirring fightback from Saints to win 3-2 was admirable.

The hero of recent weeks has, without doubt, been Romelu Lukaku, and whereas he should feature in the Midlands tomorrow, there is a doubt over his fitness.

Should a foot issue keep him out, Solskjaer will be concerned. Not only because the Belgian has been in stunning form but because bundle of energy and tricks, Marcus Rashford, is in need of a rest as he has run himself into the ground in recent displays.

Mason Greenwood, meanwhile, is unlikely to feature as he didn’t fly out with Nicky Butt’s United Under-19 squad to Denmark on Friday for the UEFA Youth League tie against FC Midtjylland due to illness.

Of course the good news for the Norwegian interim boss is that a host of players have returned. Nemanja Matic featured in defeat to Arsenal at Emirates Stadium last weekend, while Anthony Martial also featured off the bench.

Ander Herrera, Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard have all been taking part in training this week too, so will all be in contention.

In the face of a daunting trip, expect United and their players to step up once more.

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Premier League talking points as Liverpool can steal a march on Manchester City

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Liverpool can go back to the top of the Premier League table this weekend.

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.

Could be the perfect weekend for Liverpool to pounce.

Could be the perfect weekend for Liverpool to pounce.

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.

Chelsea can get a leg up in the race for fourth place.

Chelsea can get a leg up in the race for fourth place.

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.

Rafael Benitez.

Rafael Benitez’s Newcastle are surprising everyone in the league yet again.

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.

Sean Dyche's Burnley have had a poor run of results.

Sean Dyche’s Burnley have had a poor run of results.

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.

Can Arnautovic find form again?

Can Arnautovic find form again?

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Chelsea boss Maurizio Sarri dodges Napoli in Europa League draw, but gets Arsenal

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Maurizio Sarri

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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