IT'S not every week you see the Premier League champions lose 4-0, and it's not every week you see Jurgen Klopp lose his head and start having a go at Geoff Shreeves, but it happened. Good riddance, there's only so much of the Liverpool-win-every-single-game storyline that our drama-craving sensibilities can stand. Now, for the first game at Anfield as champions of England for 30 years. Aston Villa, I wish you luck.
Tuesday's 2-1 defeat at Everton meant that Leicester have taken just 17 points from the last 48 available, a run so bad that it puts their unlikely top four status in jeopardy. The Foxes are not just three points ahead of both Man Utd and Wolves in fifth and sixth respectively, two sides who are currently performing at a much higher level. Leicester have scored just six goals in their last seven league games, and four of them were against Aston Villa.
The stark contrast in Leicester's form is best illustrated through Jamie Vardy who could describe as a struggling Premier League top scorer. After 26 goals in Brendan Rodgers' first 28 games, Vardy has scored just twice in the subsequent 11, with just a single goal from open play since Christmas. Against Everton, he had more than 30 touches without registering a shot for the first time in over three years. Palace, who boast the seventh best defensive record in the Premier League this year, will be encouraged by that.
And their opponents on Saturday have a surprisingly dominant recent record at the King Power with two big wins in their last three visits, 4-1 in 2019, and 3-0 in 2017. Leicester also happen to be Wilfried Zaha's favourite opponent with more goals (5) and assists (4) against them than against any other opponent. Palace or Draw seems like a good option here.
Since losing 2-0 at home to Burnley on January 22, a result which appeared to put Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in serious danger of being sacked, Man Utd have gone unbeaten in 15 games in all competitions. Bruno Fernandes arrived to inspire the midfield, Anthony Martial began to thrive in a central role, and at the back, 10 clean sheets in those 15 games speaks for itself. Solskjaer has turned Man Utd from banter era Europa hopefuls into top four contenders with all the momentum. Two points behind inconsistent Chelsea, three points behind faltering Leicester – suddenly overhauling both looks easily doable.
But first they have to deal with Bournemouth and at the moment that seems to mean little more than simply turning up. The Cherries have lost a staggering 16 of their last 21 league games, and have not scored from open play for more than five hours. For the third time this season, Bournemouth have lost four straight league games, and with a remaining fixture list of Man Utd (a), Tottenham (h), Leicester (h), Man City (a), Southampton (h) and Everton (a), their fate may well already be sealed.
If this match is anything other than a procession for Man Utd, it will be entirely surprising. Their vast array of attacking talent has come to the fore in recent weeks, and with the returning Paul Pogba slotting in seamlessly alongside Fernandes, this question here is how many? On that front, the handicap is of interest…
Wolves are the only side with a 100% record since the Premier League restarted and they're yet to concede a goal. In fact, Wolves go into this match unbeaten in eight including seven sheets – it's 405 minutes and counting since Serge Aurier breached their defence. That form has put Wolves right in the mix for the top four. Level on points with Man Utd, they are two points behind Chelsea, and three points behind Leicester. Also like Man Utd, they have incredible momentum at the moment.
After two straight post-lockdown defeats, Arsenal have bounced back well with three straight wins, scoring at least two in all of them, and four last time out against Norwich. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's brace brings his Premier League total to 19, level at the top with Jamie Vardy which increases his chances of retaining the Golden Boot considerably. If anyone is going to threaten Wolves' seemingly impenetrable backline, it will be Aubameyang.
All six of the goals Arsenal have conceded since the restart have come after half-time. That's a particularly worrying trend in the context of Saturday's opponents. Wolves are essentially the best second-half side in the Premier League, scoring a league-high 73% of their goals after the break and conceding a league-low 11. Keeping it tight until half-time and then pouncing on the counter has worked wonders for Wolves of late, it could be just the ticket against Arsenal.
It was all going so well for Chelsea until that wretched 3-2 defeat to seemingly doomed West Ham, but was it really? Sure they'd won five straight games, sure they'd reached the FA Cup semi-finals, sure they'd pulled themselves back into top four contention, but beyond the surface, there are some troubling home truths for Frank Lampard to face.
That defeat was Chelsea's 10th in the league this season – the most since the ill-fated 2015/16 season when Jose Mourinho was sacked for the second time at Stamford Bridge. A 54-point total after 32 games leaves Lampard two points worse off than Roberto Di Matteo and Andres Villas-Boas at the same stage of their respective seasons, and nine points further back from Maurizio Sarri. With 44 goals against – an average of 1.4 per match – this is already Chelsea's second worst defensive record in Premier League history, after 1996/97's 55-goal campaign.
Chelsea have, to an extent, been getting away with it but whether Watford are the side to expose that is a different matter entirely. Watford's only away wins this season have come against Norwich (20th) and Bournemouth (19th). Post-lockdown, three winnable fixtures against Leicester, Burnley and Southampton have returned a single point. As bad as Chelsea's underlying problems are, they're in much better shape than the Hornets, and should get back on track comfortably enough here.
At the start of the season, you'd have got decent odds on Burnley vs Sheff Utd being a top half of the table clash – particularly if you put it in an accumulator with the Premier League being extended throughout the summer! – but that's what this is. 10th-placed Burnley pit their Europa League aspirations against seventh-placed Sheff Utd's slight Champions League aspirations.
Burnley are unbeaten in five home games, with clean sheets in their last three. In fact, clean sheets have become a specialty for the Clarets this season with only Liverpool eclipsing their total of 13 – Burnley's best top-flight effort since they kept 16 in 1954/55. After losing 5-0 at Man City, Burnley followed up with back-to-back 1-0 wins over Watford and Crystal Palace.
Sheff Utd have lost both of their last two away games – as many as they had lost in the previous 14 – but they are hot on the heels of a fine, dominant 3-1 win over Tottenham. That was only the third time this season the Blades had scored over two goals in a league game this season. The other occasions? A 3-3 draw with Man Utd, and a 3-0 win over Burnley. Sheff Utd can complete a handy league double here, but on their patch, I'd back Burnley to hold firm.
Just five points separate Sheff Utd in seventh (47) and Newcastle in 13th (42), and there's a feeling that any side in that midst who goes on a consistent winning run can steal a Europa League spot (hoping of course for some assistance from the FA Cup finalists). That required consistency surely puts it beyond Newcastle reach but two three-goal wins (3-0 vs Sheff Utd, 1-4 at Bournemouth) have given the Magpies' season new optimism.
So too did West Ham's last match against Chelsea. Having seen a second consecutive goal ruled out by VAR, and having conceded a soft penalty, the Hammers fought back mightily impressively to seal a 3-2 win. It's so tight at the bottom just now that those three points alone could have kept them up. Bournemouth and Aston Villa seem unlikely to win again this season, such are their struggles, and any more points for West Ham will leave them requiring at least two positive results.
West Ham struggle for consistency themselves, winning David Moyes' first two games, and then failing to put back-to-back victories together from then on. Emerging from St James' Park seems a remote possibility even before you consider the fact Newcastle, five unbeaten, are on their best post-Benitez run. Superior attacking quality could decide this one for the hosts.
Pep says Liverpool were sober when Man City thrashed them
"They drank a lot of beers this week but they arrived here with no beers in their blood which is why I give us a lot of credit."
— Goal (@goal) July 3, 2020
Full disclosure, I thought Liverpool would beat Man City 2-0 so another prediction involving the champions so soon after their 4-0 defeat to rivals Man City is a tough ask. Still, losing to Man City is one thing, but surely not Aston Villa? Well, don't be so sure. The Villains have lost just one of their last five Premier League visits to Anfield. In fact, matches involving these two sides have seen more away wins than any other Premier League fixtures (20 for Liverpool, six for Villa).
Historical form aside, Villa's current form is abject: no wins in the last eight games, and just two goals since the Premier League and FA Cup restarted. More to the point, in terms of league football, Liverpool are the best home team in the world: a ridiculous 56 games unbeaten, winning the last 23 on the bounce. And they have to bounce back from the hangover-tinged howler at the Etihad.
With Mo Salah and Sadio Mane still chasing a Golden Boot which of course they both shared last season with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Roberto Firmino still hunting down his first goal at Anfield this season, and Trent Alexander-Arnold with an outside chance of overtaking Kevin De Bruyne as the Premier League's chief assister, Liverpool have plenty of reasons to be up for their first game at Anfield as Premier League champions. Looking at them all, I like Alexander-Arnold's odds.
Southampton have never lost seven straight league matches against a single opponent but they will have to win or draw here to avoid that becoming true. On the back of Man City's best win of the season, albeit a heavily caveated one, that's going to be a tough ask. After two three-goal wins away from home, Ralph Hasenhuttl's side will be arguably disappointed to return to St Mary's where they have lost 10 times in the league this season, already a joint-high in Saints' 92-year history.
It's a bit all or nothing for Southampton in 2020. Six wins, six defeats, no draws whatsoever. When the going is good, Saints are a match for most Premier League teams especially with 19-goal frontman Danny Ings having the season of his life. But the likelihood that the going is good against City is low, with the Citizens racking up 10 wins in their last 12 against Southampton.
Own goals and poor finishing have cost Kevin De Bruyne what should have been a comfortable Premier League assists record by now. He remains three behind record holder Thierry Henry (20) but with six games to go, he should do it. That said, one post-lockdown assist is not what we were expecting. With Southampton's expansive approach, City's plentiful place on the counter, and De Bruyne's laserlike precision passing, back him to follow up Thursday's masterclass against Liverpool with another at St. Mary's.