Daniel Storey on the weekend’s major talking points...
Southampton have their lifeline
It rather sums up the drudgery of the Premier League’s bottom half that Southampton’s second win in 22 league games has taken them to within a point of safety, but Mark Hughes’ side knew the home fixture against Bournemouth was the first of two must-win matches. The second comes at Swansea’s Liberty Stadium on May 8.
Southampton have done their best to trip over their own feet after taking steps in the right direction. They relinquished leads against Arsenal and Chelsea, and against Leicester barely attempted to take control of a match that was theirs for the taking.
But they merited victory against a Bournemouth team for whom survival has already been confirmed and played with little urgency. Southampton’s tendency to concede set-piece goals continues to haunt them, but Hughes’ arrival has at least sparked an attacking improvement. They have had more than six shots on target in two of their last four league games. Before then, they had gone a calendar year without managing it.
Carvalhal must beware late-season lull
In the build-up to Swansea’s home game against Chelsea, and in relation to Antonio Conte’s comments about his own difficulties, Carlos Carvalhal made the point of talking up his own achievements in South Wales.
“I think ours is the hardest of all of them,” Carvalhal said. “Why? Because when we arrived we were five points adrift at the bottom, no-one else was playing in this condition in this competition.
“The hardest job will be my job, I did not prepare the team at the start to win the title or to go to Europe. I accepted the challenge midway through the season when we were bottom in the relegation zone. ”
It’s hard to argue with that assessment, but Carvalhal knows that history will only remember him fondly if Swansea do actually stay up. Their revival between January and March was indeed remarkable, but Swansea have taken three points from their last seven matches and have scored just twice over that period. Southampton’s victory over Bournemouth means the match between the two clubs in 17th and 18th on Tuesday week will surely be the decisive fixture in this relegation battle. Can Carvalhal transform the mood for the second time in four months?
Leicester face further uncertainty
If Claude Puel knew that Leicester City’s result could well decide his short-term future, his players made their feelings perfectly clear. This week has brought rumours that Puel will lose his job in the summer as Leicester’s owners look for a manager who can push the club towards European football. Their performance at Selhurst Park was wretched. Leicester have now won four of their last 18 league games.
But sacking Puel will attract comparisons to Southampton, who made a similar move after the Frenchman led them to the safety of eighth place last season. The suspicion is that Leicester are now chasing the dragon of their miracle 2015/16 season, rather than accepting their normal place in the scheme of things. If Riyad Mahrez leaves this summer, that gets tougher.
And yet you can see Leicester’s dilemma. If they settle for stability, they accept that they can never get close to replicating the joy of 2015/16 and the Champions League journey that followed. That acceptance could quickly breed apathy among supporters who know that nothing can ever match up.
Alexander-Arnold now offers multi-functionality
For all the clamour over Trent Alexander-Arnold going to the World Cup, there is not a serious case to be made for him being taken as a specialist right-back. Kieran Trippier has started both of England’s games in 2018, and Kyle Walker has excelled for Manchester City this season and can also play as a right-back-cum-central-defender hybrid.
But Alexander-Arnold may now have a different route into Gareth Southgate’s squad. Injuries to club teammates Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Adam Lallana have created room for Southgate to pick a wildcard, and on Saturday Alexander-Arnold was picked as Oxlade-Chamberlain’s replacement on the right side of Liverpool’s central midfield three.
If Southgate is truly committed to picking young, hungry, multi-functional players in form, Alexander-Arnold has two more league games and a Champions League run to prove that he merits faith over the tried and tested.
Hodgson in the running for Manager of the Year
Has there ever been a Premier League season in which more managers could feasibly be in the running for the LMA’s Manager of the Year award? Pep Guardiola is the overwhelming favourite - and understandably so - but Sean Dyche, Jurgen Klopp, Chris Hughton and Rafael Benitez all have their own claims.
This is the Roy Hodgson argument. The former England manager’s reputation was in the gutter after England’s Euro 2016 failure. With Crystal Palace suffering the worst start to any Premier League season after they appointed Frank de Boer this club looked doomed. Appointing Hodgson, who lost his first three league games without Palace scoring a goal, seemed a futile gesture.
And so this has been a stunning turnaround, engineered by the oldest manager in the country enjoying an extended Indian summer. Since the beginning of October, Palace have taken 38 points from 29 games and have secured their safety with a fortnight of the season remaining. Off the back of an injury crisis that threatened their survival once more, Palace have taken 11 points in their last six games. Hodgson’s team have not lost to a bottom-half team since his first match in charge.
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