Chelsea versus Manchester City is definitely a Champions League final dress rehearsal – but could it also be a 2021/22 title fight teaser?
Game to watch: Chelsea v Manchester City
The middle and least crucial of the Chelsea-City triptych that began with last month’s FA Cup semi-final and ends with the Champions League final at the Ataturk/Villa Park in three weeks’ time.
But that impending Big Cup showdown certainly adds an extra frisson to this game, one that could still be vital for Chelsea’s top-four bid and could also see Manchester City’s long-inevitable coronation as league champions rubber-stamped.
Above all that, though, is the fascination of another tussle between the two managers. Chelsea have been transformed since Thomas Tuchel replaced Frank Lampard and he got the better of Pep Guardiola in the FA Cup semi-final.
Both sides were hugely impressive in the way they swatted aside European heavyweights in midweek, and all the evidence at the moment points to this being not only a dress rehearsal for this season’s Champions League final but also next season’s Premier League title fight. Right now, these are the two best teams in the country.
Team to watch: West Ham
Still right there in the Champions League chase and, if City can do them a favour, could end the weekend level on points with Chelsea.
The win at Burnley heavily hinted at a team that is not going to go away. They may ultimately come up just short in this unlikely Champions League tilt – no shame in that, of course – but it seems unlikely that it will be down to their own collapse on the home straight.
As much as anything, their run-in really is nothing to be worried about. This weekend’s home clash with a dangerously inconsistent Everton side is perhaps the hardest task remaining; after the Toffees come Brighton, West Brom and Southampton.
With both Chelsea and Leicester facing the welcome but undeniable distraction of upcoming major finals, West Ham still have a real chance here. But there is no margin for error against an Everton side still dreaming of the Europa Conference League.
Manager to watch: Ryan Mason
He has had a good and fun start to his spell as Tottenham interim manager, but the fates have been kind. A Carabao final defeat to Manchester City was never going to be pinned on the novice (especially with Spurs somehow succeeding in keeping it to 1-0), while if you wanted to handpick your first two league games right now you would select Southampton and Sheffield United at home.
Yet it is also undeniable that Spurs is a happier and more productive place since the stench of Jose Mourinho was removed from the place. They are playing on the front foot again – albeit in fixtures where that is relatively straightforward.
This weekend, though, Mason and his newly-upbeat attacking Spurs face their toughest test. City was a free hit, and the Saints and the Blades were easy meat. Next up the 29-year-old novice faces the 65-year-old master Marcelo Bielsa and his swashbuckling, freewheeling Leeds side. If nothing else, this now promises to be a genuinely fun game to watch between two teams boasting fine arrays of attacking talent – except now both are willing to deploy them.
Player to watch: Bruno Fernandes
“It’s physically impossible for the players. We have not been dealt a good hand. We are going to need everyone for these four games. It’s a short turnaround but we have to be ready.” That was Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s assessment of a Manchester United schedule that requires them to play four games in eight days and seven in 21 including the Europa League final.
Solskjaer has a point. He is going to need everyone. But mainly he is going to need Bruno Fernandes, who by law has to play all of the football. With over 4,000 United minutes under his belt already this season, he was granted a whole six minutes off in the second leg of a tie United had already quite thoroughly put to bed a week earlier – largely thanks to Bruno’s own efforts. Be sure to tune in on Sunday to watch the brilliant, exhausted Portuguese drag himself around Villa Park for 90 minutes.
Football League game to watch: Crawley v Bolton
It’s been a tricky few years for Bolton, one way or another. Less than a decade since they were a Premier League club they find themselves in League Two. But victory at Crawley on Saturday – or matching Morecambe’s result – will send them back up into League One at the first time of asking.
European game(s) to watch: Barcelona v Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid v Sevilla
No point watching one of these. It’s got to be both. Because this has got to be a pretty rare occurrence. Four teams, at this stage of the season, all still just about in genuine title contention (Sevilla, six points off top spot with four games to go, absolutely need to win) and playing each other on the same weekend. It’s third v first and second v fourth, and when the dust settles we’ll have a very slightly clearer picture of who might eventually win this frantic and bonkers La Liga title race.