SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – We hurtle into the weekend with a couple of games that stick their necks out as potential entertainers. With the FA Cup Semi-Finals happening on Saturday and Sunday, we won’t have a full slate of fixtures.
You can catch the FA Cup on ESPN + as Leicester take on Southampton on Sunday and Chelsea and Manchester City go at it the day before.
As for the league, a slip up by Manchester City against Leeds, saw their city rivals, United, take full advantage of a Spurs team that flatters to deceive. By the time the weekend is over, United could narrow the gap to eight points with just six games to play. An outside chance, but still, something to play for.
Everton v. Tottenham Hotspur
This is your Friday match kicking off at 1:00 p.m. on NBCSN from Goodison Park, and two teams with an outside chance of Champions League soccer next season.
Everton have been hit heavily with the injury bug the last few weeks and will likely once again be without top goalscorer in Dominic Calvert-Lewin, but Jordan Pickford, Allan, Andre Gomes, and Josh King are all likely to be available after their stint in the treatment room. It feels as if Everton are on the edge of something very positive moving forward, and a back against the wall performance against Brighton on Monday proved that although it wasn’t great, their defensive organization stood quite firm, which allowed them to withstand Brighton’s approach that yielded 23 shots at the Everton goal, but just three of those on target.
Now I do expect a much better approach from Carlo Ancelotti’s men, but this is still a depleted squad with no less than six players still missing through injury. The organization is the key for the Toffees, and their ability to switch over recent weeks in formation from a 3-4-1-2 and then to a 5-3-2 has helped them cope somewhat without the long list of regular starters missing.
They have grit and heart in abundance but are intelligent enough to stick to a plan as they ride the storm. They are within touching distance of Champions League soccer; but, and probably more realistic, the Europa League qualification is within their grasp as we head into the last seven games of the season.
Everton, for all their efforts this season does deserve something. They are a well-rounded team. Big and tall, defensively organized with a plan of how they want to approach the game, and identity if you will, the ability to knock the ball long, hold the ball up, or get in behind and stretch defenses. It has a bit of everything. It can be entertaining, or downright ugly, whatever gets the result. Keep an eye on the enigmatic Brazilian, Richarlison, badly in need of more help over recent weeks, but his ability to create something from nothing will be vital. Thankfully the recent return of James Rodriguez is also a timely reminder of how much quality Everton has at their disposal.
Spurs, what can we say about them? Disappointing? Boring? They took the lead against Manchester United last weekend and had their chances to extend the lead, but didn’t and were punished by a quality second-half showing by the Red Devils.
Jose Mourinho, for all the good he’s done in the game, looks and feels like he’s on his last legs. The game has evolved and left him behind. Can he change? Possibly, but I don’t think he gets another shot to prove it. This Spurs team has plenty of quality, some of the best players in the EPL. But for whatever reason, it hasn’t worked properly.
There are flashes of brilliance in attack from this team, but it’s the other end that has hurt Spurs, something Mourinho got right at his time in Porto, Chelsea and Inter Milan, something he built his entire career on. Defensively superior to those around him, and part of that issue is, he doesn’t know his best center-back partnership, with multiple variations throughout the season and nothing looking exceptional. This could be to Everton’s advantage, but it’s the other end they’ll need to be cautious of as Spurs have Harry Kane, Son Heung-min and then the likes of Tanguy Ndombele who is also a major talent, and all three that can orchestrate attacks.
Prediction: Both teams must go for it in terms of needing points as we’re at the crutch point of the season. I could say a draw because it’ll be close, but I think Spurs may just have the attacking edge as they’re at pretty much full strength in that department.
Leeds United v. Liverpool
Monday’s fixture completes round 32 for you at Elland Road, with a 1:00 p.m. kick on NBCSN. Two teams that have had differing seasons, Leeds got a shock 2-1 result against leaders Manchester City last weekend, and since their arrival from the Championship, have tried, for the most part, to play an attacking style of soccer.
Leeds has for me, been the team of the season. Not taking anything away from the eventual title winners. But to come up, not only survive, but play the way they have, and to take it to all comers has been a refreshing approach. I love that this team has taken to the EPL the way they have, not a team of stars, but ones that have completely bought into a style that the manager has honed over a long time. I certainly hope Marcelo Bielsa stays as long as he can, turning 66 this off-season leads me to believe we have to savor him whilst we can. A compliment to his methods and improvement of players is that these players are now being linked with clubs that could get sizable fees. But why would they want to leave? Of course, money is one of the reasons to leave. But to play on this team might be the only chance some of these players get to play at the highest level. Yes, this team does concede goals, but they are relentless in their approach to going forward.
Wave after wave, the fullbacks overlap, the wide forwards hug the touchline or pinch in. The likes of Patrick Bamford have reached a level I didn’t think was possible. I assumed he’d have a good second-tier career, but he looks every bit the EPL striker. Jack Harrison, made the left-wing his own, works tirelessly up and down the flank, and could as he develops a little more push for an England call-up. Then there is Brazilian, Raphinha, who has been a revelation since his arrival from France. He has become the key player in the attacking cog for Bielsa ball, if he can shake off the knock he sustained against Manchester City last week, he’ll be most definitely one to watch.
Liverpool comes into Leeds looking to make four wins in a row as they chase a Champions League place for next season. The midweek loss over two legs against Real Madrid knocked them out of this season’s Champions League in what was their only outside chance of silverware this season.
A disappointing title defense hampered by long-term injuries that also coincided with a dramatic drop-off in individual players’ form. But here they are, on the fringes of securing qualification of the most coveted of competitions. There are flashes of the old Liverpool, we saw that on Wednesday. But this team has largely been carried by Mo Salah this season, and the arrival of Diogo Jota has been a bright spot.
The drop-off in Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane has been a cause for alarm and will need to be addressed in the off-season. Right now, this is about getting all the points they can, come season’s end. As we’ve seen, they’re still a team that will look to dominate possession, the likes of Thiago, brought in to unlock defenses, but has largely been deployed in other roles. But if anyone that can beat the Leeds press, it’s Thiago. They still have explosive options, and their relentless approach is still there, it’s just more predictable. This is one of the concerns and will need to be improved on if they want to not only beat Leeds but somehow get one of the two CL spots still open.
Prediction: Leeds will look to exploit the reigning champions on the counter, and the Reds will look to exploit a sometimes-erratic Leeds backline. I think this one has goals in it, and one the Reds might just sneak all three points.
Games are coming thick and fast, so keep an eye out for the midweek round this next week.