EPL: Top-four battle heats up for big spenders
The intensifying battle for Champions League places takes centre stage in the Premier League this weekend as Liverpool host Tottenham, while Manchester United and Chelsea seek to recover from damaging defeats
West Bromwich Albion's Irish midfielder James McClean (L) vies with Manchester City's Belgian midfielder Kevin De Bruyne during the English Premier League football match between Manchester City and West Bromwich Albion at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester, north west England, on January 31, 2018. Pic/AFP
The intensifying battle for Champions League places takes centre stage in the Premier League this weekend as Liverpool host Tottenham, while Manchester United and Chelsea seek to recover from damaging defeats. Just five points now separate United in second from Spurs in fifth, with the riches and prestige of a place in the Champions League for next season fuelling a record Â£430 million ($611 million, 492 million euros) splurge in the January transfer window.
Arsenal sit a distant sixth, six points behind their north London rivals, provoking an uncharacteristically busy window of comings and goings at the Emirates. Top four contenders at a crossroads Philippe Coutinho's 160-million-euro move to Barcelona meant Liverpool ended January in the black despite splashing out a world-record £75 million for a defender on Southampton's Virgil van Dijk. Despite holding their own in this season's Champions League and domestically, Liverpool and Spurs are not even in the top 10 for net spend on transfers in the Premier League this season. However, the steady progress achieved by both clubs under Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino will be threatened if they miss out on next season's Champions League, making Sunday's clash at Anfield all the more vital.
A dominant 2-0 victory over Manchester United on Wednesday underlined Spurs' return to form and a win at Anfield would move them ahead of their hosts in the table. Back-to-back defeats to Swansea City and West Bromwich Albion raised questions over Liverpool's decision not to invest in a direct replacement for Coutinho but they bounced back to see off Huddersfield 3-0 in midweek and remain unbeaten in the league at Anfield this season.
Aubameyang's bow A forward line partnering new recruits Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan with Mesut Ozil, who has signed a new long-term deal, means the pessimism of a damaging 3-1 defeat at Swansea on Tuesday was quickly forgotten. However, with Spurs and City to follow Everton's visit to the Emirates, Arsene Wenger will need to former Dortmund duo to quickly re-establish their partnership to keep in touch with the other challengers.
The Gunners could also quickly come to rue their winter clearout as Theo Walcott returns to the Emirates fresh from scoring twice to secure Everton's first win of 2018 against Leicester on Wednesday.
Not so merry Mahrez Leicester were hampered at Goodison Park by the absence of Riyad Mahrez, who reportedly handed in a transfer request due to City's interest in a bid to force his way out of the club.
Mahrez also submitted a transfer request at the end of last season, but Foxes boss Claude Puel believes the Algerian can be cheered up in time to face Swansea on Saturday. "All the players and staff will help him to come back with a smile and to enjoy his football," said the Frenchman. Chopping City down to size City's chase of Mahrez began after Leroy Sane was ruled out for at least six weeks with ankle ligament damage. Pep Guardiola's call for referees to protect players from dangerous challenges fell on deaf ears as Kevin De Bruyne and Brahim Diaz escaped from lunges by James McLean and Matt Phillips in Wednesday's routine 3-0 win over West Bromwich Albion as City moved 15 points clear at the top.
"I think, as the coach says, the referees have to do their job and if it's a red card they have to give the red card," said City midfielder Bernardo Silva. "They are not doing that over the last few months." City could be in for another bruising encounter when they travel to face a Burnley side seeking their first win of the year.
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