By Niall Clarke
- Five burning questions for match-week 26 of the Premier League season
- Predictions for all the weekend’s games
The EFL Cup final means there are only eight Premier League games this weekend, but there is still plenty to talk about, including these five burning questions for match-week 26.
How will Leicester respond to Ranieri’s sacking?
One of the biggest stories from mid-week was the surprise sacking of Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri just nine months after he guided the Foxes to a historic Premier League title win. The decision came after Leicester’s 2-1 defeat to Sevilla in the Champions League, which is not a bad result away from home, making the decision even more shocking.
Leicester have struggled to replicate their form of last season and find themselves in the middle of a relegation battle, but the timing of the sacking is strange. There was still hope that the Foxes could find some form to save themselves, but it seems like the club owners have decided to take a new direction to avoid relegation. A new manager can often breed more positive results, even if it is just short term. Roberto Mancini has opened up as the favourite to take over, but there is no word yet on who will replace Ranieri.
It is certain the new boss will not take over until after the Liverpool game on Monday. The Foxes welcome the Reds to the King Power stadium having not scored a single league goal in 2017. Often matches against the top clubs can motivate those at the bottom to turn in a great performance. We saw that with Leicester against Manchester City earlier in the season.
It is a match that has implications on both ends of the table. Liverpool could end the weekend in the top four with a win, whilst Leicester could drop into the bottom three. All will be revealed on Monday.
Will Spurs bounce back from Europa League disappointment?
Leicester were not the only Premier League team in action mid-week. Spurs suffered a shock Europa League exit at the hands of Gent after failing to overturn a 1-0 deficit from the first leg to lose on aggregate 3-2. It was a horrible night for Spurs, who saw Harry Kane score an own goal and Dele Alli sent off.
On the bright side, Spurs have no distractions in their attempt to close the gap on Chelsea for the rest of the season. Due to their Thursday fixture, Tottenham will play on Sunday when they welcome Stoke City to White Hart Lane. The Potters are a mid-table side who are not in contention for anything, so whilst it should be a win for Spurs, it could turn out to be a difficult game.
How much will the Europa League exit affect Spurs’ performance? Will the players feel slightly fatigued after the game against Gent? Will the loss dent their confidence in any way? All interesting questions that will be answered on Sunday.
Can Chelsea extend their lead at the top of the Premier League?
All season long, Chelsea have had the ‘advantage’ of being able to focus most of their attention on training for the upcoming league fixture with no worries of any European action. It has given them extra time to perfect this new formation which was yielded the results needed to take them towards the Premier League title.
Though it seems unlikely, Chelsea can still be caught despite their recent dominance. The Blues welcome Swansea to Stamford Bridge to kick off the weekend’s action, and this is not an easy game. The Swans have picked up their form under Paul Clement and have battled to get themselves out of the relegation zone. They are still in the fight at the foot of the table however, safety is not secured yet.
These games can be dangerous for top clubs so Chelsea must keep their focus. With many of their rivals not playing due to the EFL Cup final, the Blues have a chance to extend their lead at the top of the table, even though teams will have a game in hand. A loss will give those said teams a boost when they return to Premier League action, and it opens up the seemingly dead title race into something more interesting.
Who will end the weekend in the bottom three?
Arguably the most exciting part of the Premier League season is the fight to stay in the top flight, and this season’s looks like it may go the distance. Match-week 26 is another round deep into the battle, can anyone find a second wind as we enter the final third of the season.
There is a big six-pointer taking place at Selhurst Park on Saturday as Crystal Palace host Middlesbrough. The Eagles are 19th with the same amount of points as their position and level with bottom club Sunderland. It has not gone to plan for big Sam Allardyce thus far, but the former England manager has experience in guiding clubs to safety. Boro are a hard team to break down, but they are not known for their attacking prowess, so the Eagles’ unsteady defence may not be tested as much as usual. A win for Palace will send them level on points with Middlesbrough, but a loss will keep them in the bottom three and see Boro go six points clear of them.
David Moyes will make the trip to his former club Everton as he attempts to lift Sunderland from the foot of the table. Not much will be expected from his return to Goodison Park as Everton have been the best team outside the big six this season with Romelu Lukaku looking extremely deadly. Any point is a positive one though and if Sunderland can eek out a point or three then it will go a long way towards their survival hopes.
Like Swansea, Hull have looked like a different side under their new manager Marco Silva. The Tigers still remain in the bottom three, but they have a good chance of climbing out of the relegation zone when they host Burnley on Saturday. The Clarets home record is one of the best in the league, but away from home, they leave a lot to be desired. Can Hull grab the crucial three points needed?
If results do not go their way, Leicester could find themselves in the relegation zone just nine months after winning the title. It is quite the remarkable turnaround.
What else is happening?
Saturday’s football concludes with a pair of mid-table clashes. West Brom host Bournemouth, who are getting a little too close to the relegation scrap for comfort. West Ham make the trip to Watford in the tea time kick off.
Chelsea 3-0 Swansea
Crystal Palace 1-1 Middlesbrough
Everton 2-0 Sunderland
Hull 2-1 Burnley
West Brom 2-1 Bournemouth
Watford 2-2 West Ham
Tottenham 3-1 Stoke
Leicester 1-1 Liverpool
The Premier League returns on Saturday 25 February.
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