Wednesday, June 16, 2021

EPL preview: New era of Mourinho, Wenger rivalry kicks off at the Theatre of Dreams


tiamin rice

Sparks often fly when Jose Mourinho (R) and Arsene Wenger (L) share a touchline, typified by their notorious shoving match during a Chelsea-Arsenal fixture two years ago. PHOTO: AFP

This weekend ends the period that seems to be the longest in any football fan’s life, the international break and this afternoon, at 1:30pm Nigerian time, the two most successful teams in the history of the English Premiership, Manchester United and Arsenal, will lock horns in what is expected to be a highly entertaining clash.

This fixture used to be the biggest in the land years ago when both teams totally dominated the English football scene and boasted some of the best players in the world. It has had a lot of incidents from the entire Arsenal defence harassing Ruud Van Nielstelrooy over a missed penalty to pizza being thrown at Sir Alex Ferguson by Cesc Fabregas after a game and club captains Roy Keane and Patrick Viera squaring off in the tunnel.

Both teams are coached by two very experienced and successful coaches who have no love lost for each other. To say that Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho are not fond of each other is just stating the obvious, they can be called the best of enemies, because their dislike for each other is well documented and in 2014 it almost turned physical when the Frenchman, upset about Mourinho encroaching his ‘space’ during a league match, put his hands on the Portuguese, thankfully no punch was thrown by either man. Arsene Wenger has never tasted victory in the Premier League with Jose Mourinho in the opposition dugout.

The pair have met on 11 occasions with Mourinho manager of Chelsea for all of those games, and the Portuguese boss has five wins and six draws. In fact, Wenger’s only victory against Mourinho was in the Community Shield in August 2015.It isn’t surprising that the coach with the most number of wins over Wenger is a former United manager in the person of Sir Alex Ferguson, who beat the Frenchman fifteen times during his time as the Old Trafford boss.

Historically, this fixture has been bittersweet for Arsene Wenger as he has experienced great success and humiliating defeats in this game. I will give three examples, the first one was in the 2001/2002 season when Wenger brought his Arsenal team to Old Trafford and beat United courtesy of a Sylvain Wiltord goal which not only gave them victory on the day, but also won the title for the gunners that season at the home of their arch rivals. In the 2000/2001 season, Arsene Wenger took his injury hit side to the home of the red devils and were thrashed 6-1 by the home side, a result that was surpassed over a decade later in the 2011/2012 season when Manchester United thumped Arsenal 8-2 at Old Trafford.

Manchester United are still trying to find their bearing this season and have been very inconsistent. They are presently sixth on the table and have just one win from their last five league matches. The home side have huge defensive problems with the likes of Eric Bailly, Antonio Valencia, Chris Smalling all out for this game, while Luke Shaw’s fitness for this clash is also in doubt. They will also be without the suspended Zlatan Ibrahimovic, while Captain Wayne Rooney is also a huge question mark after he returned from England duty early with a knee injury. Ander Herrera should return to the side after missing their 3-1 win over Swansea through suspension.
Arsenal will go into the latest installment of this rivalry as favourites as they haven’t lost in any competition since the opening day of the league season.

Since then, they have won 12 of 16 matches. However, they will be reminded that the last time they came to Old Trafford with a huge unbeaten streak (49 matches), the run was brought to an end by the red devils. They also haven’t won a game at Old Trafford in the league since 2006. The gunners will be vulnerable at right-back without Hector Bellerin, while Alexis Sanchez’s involvement will depend on how he recovers from international duty. The likely return of Santi Carzola should be a big boost for the away side.

Kelechi Iheanacho and his Manchester City team will be guests of Crystal Palace at the Capital today and for the citizens, they haven’t been getting the best of results lately with just one win from their last five league matches. They were forced to settle for a point at home in their last game against Middlesbrough which made them lose ground in the title race and they will desperately need to win at Selhurst Park today if they hope to stay in touch with Liverpool and Chelsea at the top. For the home side, they have failed to win any of their last five league matches, losing four and the visit of Manchester City won’t give them the reprieve they need right now.
Odion Ighalo has lost his shirt in the National team and it seems it’s only a matter of time before he suffers the same scenario at club level if he doesn’t start banging in the goals for Watford soon.

They face Ahmed Musa’s Leicester City today and would be looking for a victory to compensate their fans that travelled all the way to Liverpool in their last league match only to see their team humiliated by six goals to one. They are unbeaten in their last three home matches. Jose Holebas is suspended for this match after picking up his fifth booking of the season, which means Juan Zuniga could earn just his third start of the season, while Isaac Success, who has missed Watford’s last three matches with injury should make the squad and Costel Pantilimon may be required between the sticks after Heurelho Gomes was forced off against Liverpool before the international break with a knee injury. For Leicester City, they are yet to win a game away from home in the Premier League this season, having lost four of their five matches on the road.

However, they are unbeaten in their last four matches against Watford and Claudio Ranieri will be hoping to earn their first win away from home in the league since April. Danny Drinkwater and Demarai Gray picked up injuries during the international break and are both doubts for this game, while Jamie Vardy ended a goalless run of 14 matches for club and country after scoring in England’s 2-2 draw with Spain in midweek.

Victor Anichebe and his Sunderland team will hope to build on their first league win of the season over Bournemouth last time out when they host Hull City. The big Nigerian striker picked up a rib injury in their 2-1 win over Bournemouth but that isn’t expected to keep him sidelined today.

There will also be a London derby this weekend when Tottenham host West Ham in the today’s late kickoff. The home team have failed to win their last seven matches in all competitions, though are the last remaining unbeaten Premier League team this season. The return to fitness of Harry Kane will come as a boost to Mauricio Pochettino’s side. Dele Alli is still out for Spurs, while Moussa Sissoko returns from suspension and could start Mousa Dembele, Erik Lamela, Christian Eriksen and Vincent Janssen are all doubts, but should be passed fit to feature in some capacity. West Ham have lost only one of their last six competitive outings, but have won only three league games all campaign. They have also failed to win their last two league visits to White Hart Lane and today’s trip to north London won’t be an easy one to navigate. Mark Noble is suspended for West Ham, with Havard Nordtveit in line to partner Pedro Obiang in the middle of the park.

In other league matches that will be played today, Stoke, who are on a six-game unbeaten run, will host a Bournemouth side winless in three games, Everton will hope to bounce back from their disastrous loss against Chelsea with a win over Swansea City and league leaders will face a tough game against Southampton at St Mary’s.

The weekend’s final fixture will see Middlesbrough, who are beginning to develop a reputation of getting results against the topsides, take on a red hot Chelsea team on a five match winning streak. After a difficult start under Antonio Conte, Chelsea look unstoppable at the moment with the likes of Diego Costa and Eden Hazard in magnificent form. Both of them picked up knocks while on international duty but neither injury is serious and they should be involved. Hazard and Costa are the main danger men, while Victor Moses, boosted by his two goals for Nigeria against Algeria, and Pedro will also require special attention. Aitor Karanka will be hoping that Daniel Ayala will be available again after missing the Manchester City game.

However, there’s no guarantee that he will be in the starting XI if he is fit with Ben Gibson and Calum Chambers developing a solid partnership over the last few games. Victor Valdes has been impressive in recent weeks and he kept Boro in the game against Pep Guardiola’s City side, so he should retain his place in goal. Boro will probably stick with the 4-3-3 formation that has been successful against the tougher teams in the division and it would be a shock to see Aitor Karanka stray from that, even with his side being at home. This should be an interesting game to cap this weekend’s action in the English Premiership.

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