The Premier League is back.
An end to the three-month hiatus caused by coronavirus has ensured a return to the storylines that dominated before this, unprecedented and unexpected, break.
Each of the 20 top-flight sides will need to rely on a key man throughout the remaining weeks of this unique 2019/20 campaign. Here is our selection:
History is in danger of repeating itself for Arsenal. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (17) has netted 10-more times than his nearest team-mate (Alexandre Lacazette), with these goals being worth 14 points. Take the Gabon forward’s strikes away – in an, admittedly, rudimentary manner – and the Gunners would be in the drop zone, rather than ninth. A failure to renew the deal that expires next summer bears hallmarks of the era of Robin van Persie, Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas. An unlikely push into the Champions League might be the only way to halt another damaging departure.
Scoring goals isn’t the major problem for second-bottom Villa. If it was, skipper and Manchester United target Jack Grealish would remain their undoubted key man. The return of incessant box-to-box midfielder John McGinn, instead, offers a solution for the division’s leakiest defence (56 conceded). The Scotland international’s comeback isn’t a guaranteed panacea – they were 18th in December when he fractured an ankle in defeat to Southampton. But a sharp return would provide an edge missing to Dean Smith’s flimsy side and, potentially, bridge the two-point gap to safety.
The third-bottom Cherries have it all to do if they want to secure a sixth-successive season of top-flight football. This is where – sometime – England striker Callum Wilson is key. His employers have the joint-highest average ranking of remaining opponent (8.2), play four of the top six and none of the bottom six and only seven points were notched in their last 12 fixtures before the interruption. Wilson boasted a combined tally of 23 goals and assists in 2018/19, with this figure falling to a paltry eight goals and no assists for this term. An immediate, and belated, uptick could be the difference between survival or relegation.
BRIGHTON & HOVE ALBION
Lewis Dunk is a man for all seasons. The one-cap England centre-back has only failed to start two Premier League games this season (defeats to Leicester and Tottenham), is joint-third top scorer for Brighton with three efforts and has the joint-second-most assists with three. The fact he features so high up on the Seagulls’ scoring chart tells its own story for a goal-shy side that are 15th and just two points from danger.
A first-ever run into the Europa League proper – they were eliminated by Olympiacos in 2018/19’s play-offs – isn’t a million miles off for the 10th-placed Clarets. This is some turnaround from a winter of, relative, discontent. Forgotten England centre-back James Tarkowski has been influential. The ever-present 27-year-old helped earn four clean sheets from the preceding six matches, plus sits top in the league for interceptions (235) and second for shots blocked (34).
Tight margins must go the Blues’ way if they are to hold onto fourth place and guarantee Champions League football in 2020/21. This is where the inconsistent goal threat of Tammy Abraham comes in. The England centre forward scored 11 times in his opening 14 top-flight run-outs this season, before adding just two more in the following 11 matches. A return to form is not just important for Chelsea’s ambitions. With RB Leipzig and Germany striker Timo Werner, seemingly, bound for Stamford Bridge, Abraham must present a firmer case for continued prominence.
Palace and Wilfried Zaha have experienced contrasting fortunes in the last two seasons; Palace were awful in 2018/19 and solid in 2019/20, while their star Ivory Coast winger was electric last term (10 goals, five assists in 34 outings) and limp in this one (three goals, three assists in 29). An intriguing few weeks, now, awaits both parties. Zaha must ignite if last summer’s fervent desire to exit is to be fulfilled, while 11th-placed Palace can attain just a second top-half finish since 1990/91.
The break came at an unfortunate time for Dominic Calvert-Lewin. A run of five goals and one assist in his last seven top-flight run-outs helped him out-perform a 13th-placed Everton side who’d began to lose momentum after revered manager Carlo Ancelotti’s emphatic December arrival. This spell also thrust Calvert-Lewin into the conversation about England for Euro 2020. The tournament has been parked for a year, but what better way for the striker to underline long-term promise with a stellar display in Sunday’s Merseyside derby versus champions-elect Liverpool?
A startling season for Brendan Rodgers’ Foxes threatened to come off the rails when injury denied them Wilfred Ndidi for a damaging stretch that contained one win from seven games. This first start back for the superb Nigeria defensive midfielder – whose average of 10.4 defensive duels per game is the league’s third-best – beckoned a dominant 4-0 thrashing of fellow Midlanders Aston Villa. A healthy eight-point gap stands between third-placed Leicester and fifth-placed Manchester United. Ndidi’s presence should help maintain it for the division’s second-meanest defence.
An unexpectedly convoluted route towards a, hallowed, first top-flight crown since 1990/91 is almost done. This cherished trophy will, belatedly, be in Red hands soon. Opportunity should then abound in the matches to come. No-one should receive more than 17-year-old winger Harvey Elliott. This is a starlet tipped to go supernova since he became the youngest player to feature in the League, aged 15 years and 174 days, when at Fulham. Careful handling since July 2019’s arrival at Anfield has ensured only one Premier League appearance to date. Expect this number to swell and an unbounded talent to be set free.
An unquestionable great has entered the final days of his outstanding Premier League stint. This nine-game run to the end for second-placed City – 25 points in arrears to Liverpool – is all about honouring David Silva. The Spain playmaker’s limitless genius since June 2010’s move from Valencia has witnessed 14 major trophies lifted, plus scoring 57 goals crafting and 90 assists in 301 top-flight matches. It is an unavoidable shame that supporters will not be crammed into Etihad Stadium to give him a fitting salutation.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has a wonderful problem to solve at United – how do you fit Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba into the same XI? Balance is key if pretensions are made real of gatecrashing the top four from fifth. This is where Fred comes in. The once-maligned Brazil midfielder has rebounded, emphatically, in 2019/20. A tally of 279 defensive duels is the top-flight’s second most. Such energy could see him favoured over the languid Nemanja Matic.
A curious end to the season awaits. It is three months since the Saudi Arabia-backed takeover was sent to the Premier League for approval, while a healthy gap of eight points and five places separates them from the drop zone. This is where Joelinton comes in. Is it already too late for the club-record £40 million purchase to rebound from a disastrous debut campaign in which he has appeared ill-suited to a ‘No9’ role and contributed one goal in 29 run-outs? Or can the Brazilian salvage his season ahead of a, possible, summer of upheaval?
Injuries have, helped, define bottom-placed Norwich’s Premier League return after three seasons away. The absence of centre-back Timm Klose has been keenly felt since August 24’s rollercoaster 3-2 loss to Chelsea. His return from a serious knee injury adds welcome ballast to a club who could require five wins from their remaining nine fixtures to survive. The Switzerland international will provide reams of top-flight experience next to the promising Ben Godfrey, plus allow for the use of a three-man defence.
Vast overachievement has already long been secured by a seventh-placed Blades side who were wildly tipped for an instant Championship return. With goals likely to remain at a premium, only five sides have stuck fewer than their 30, effectively keeping them out is essential. An agreement to extend the loan of goalkeeper Dean Henderson is intrinsic to this. The assured Manchester United-owned prospect has, among shot stoppers, recorded the joint-second-most clean sheets (10), recorded the second-lowest goals against per 90 minutes (0.8) and has the fourth-best save percentage (75.8).
Where would the Saints – sat in a relatively comfortable 14th place – be without Danny Ings? The one-cap England striker’s 15-goals represents 43 per cent of their tally – a joint high with Arsenal’s Aubameyang. These strikes have been worth 13 points; without them, they’d be bottom on goal difference. The ex-Liverpool player will back himself to end a three-game drought on Friday versus Norwich.
Spurs are outsiders, from eighth, in a congested race for the top four. Yet a sparse treatment room has provided renewed hope after what promised to be a bleak, conventional, end to 2019/20. The central figure, as always, is Harry Kane. A bountiful supply line should be in situ to supply the skipper who was chopped down by January’s serious hamstring tear. Fellow injury victims Son Heung-min and Steven Bergwijn are also back, while Dele Alli returns from suspension after Friday’s meeting with Manchester United. Kane (20 games, 11 goals) had been on course to record his lowest scoring return as a Premier League regular. Conditions are, now, present for a riotous end to the campaign.
A club – and their youthful summer addition – were on ascent before March’s startling events. Senegal winger Ismaila Sarr had struck once in nine Premier League outings, prior to Nigel Pearson returning to the Hornets dugout for December 14’s encouraging 2-0 defeat at Liverpool. His electric record under the Englishman is four goals and three assists in 10 matches, including a brace and an assist in February’s rip-roaring 3-0 humping of the aforementioned Reds. Watford – now 17th – were six points adrift when Pearson took over and Sarr was nowhere. The current outlook is far brighter for all concerned.
WEST HAM UNITED
Sebastien Haller will be key for the Hammers if they are to avoid the doomsday scenario from this wretched season. Happier times seemed ahead when the club-record £45m summer signing from Eintracht Frankfurt claimed three goals in his opening three run-outs. Only four more have followed, however, in 23 more top-flight matches. A surge to rival the late summer is desperately required by the former France Under-21 centre forward spring the Hammers up the table from a precarious 16th, level on points with 18th-placed Bournemouth.
Adama Traore’s turbo-boosted rise has stolen plenty of attention, but Mexico international Raul Jimenez remains leader of the pack at Molineux. His contribution of 13 goals and six assists in 29 run-outs has showcased a nuanced all-round game, plus lent weight to the suggestion he’s the best striker outside the usual elite. Jimenez has the ability to fire an excellent Wolves up from sixth and into the Champions League. This could also inspire him to ignore reputed covetous glances from the likes of Manchester United and Juventus.
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