The Premier League’s first winter break is at its midway point and while it is a chance to recharge the batteries for some, others are returning for the run-in.
Runaway leaders Liverpool resume action after some warm-weather relaxation and are one of eight teams in action this weekend.
Here, the PA news agency looks at some of the talking points across the latest round of Premier League fixtures.
Extended rest for Reds stars?
Many of Liverpool’s first-team squad made the most of their time off jetting around the globe, whether it was Trent Alexander-Arnold watching NBA basketball in Miami or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Virgil Van Dijk having a kick-about in Dubai. They returned to training this week to prepare for the game at Norwich, where a 17th straight Premier League win would see the Reds open up a 25-point gap at the top of the table. Barring a miraculous turn of events, the title is already in the bag so Jurgen Klopp might opt to leave out some of his star names at Carrow Road on Saturday evening, with a trip to Atletico Madrid in the Champions League looming on the horizon next week. Liverpool have a realistic chance to become only the second team to successfully defend their Champions League crown, so why take any unnecessary risks with big-name players over the coming weeks?
The battle for mid-table salvation
Southampton and Burnley have both edged themselves away from the relegation places in recent weeks and they meet at St Mary’s in the early kick-off on Saturday, looking for the win that would provide a little more breathing space. Both are on 31 points and seven clear of the drop zone but it is so tight down at the bottom of the table that either could still get sucked back into danger in the remaining matches. The same also applies to Newcastle, who are also on 31 points and split the Saints and Clarets in the standings on goal difference heading into the weekend. Steve Bruce’s team are unbeaten in league and cup since a New Year’s Day defeat to Leicester and will be looking to maintain that momentum at Arsenal on Sunday. The Magpies host Burnley at the end of the month.
Spurs eye top four
When Jose Mourinho arrived at Tottenham in November, he inherited a club that had been aimlessly drifting in the Premier League. Either side of reaching the Champions League final, domestic results were disappointing for most of 2019 with Spurs having picked up only 25 from 24 league games prior to the Portuguese being appointed. Tottenham were 14th in the table when Mourinho replaced Mauricio Pochettino, but just short of three months later Spurs sit sixth and are only four points behind fourth-placed Chelsea, who host Manchester United on Monday night. Victory at Aston Villa would put pressure on their rivals ahead of their tricky game 24 hours later.
Villa hoping for more home comforts
Dean Smith’s side have dipped in and out of the relegation zone for much of the campaign but will head into their match against Tottenham outside of the bottom three, a point better off than West Ham below them. Villa have won four of their last six games in all competitions at Villa Park, including their last two – a crucial last-gasp victory to come from behind to beat Watford and an equally dramatic success against Leicester to reach the Carabao Cup final. Villa were defeated at Bournemouth at the beginning of the month and will be hoping a return to Villa Park can inspire another memorable win.
Will Ighalo be involved at Stamford Bridge?
Manchester United’s new signing Odion Ighalo has been training away from the club as a precautionary measure following his arrival from China. The Reds decided on the policy because of the risk – albeit a slight one – posed by the coronavirus. The striker was not taken on the club’s winter break training camp in Spain because of concerns he may have difficulty getting back into the UK. Ighalo, 30, is expected to travel with the squad for Monday night’s game at Chelsea and United may need him there if they are to keep their hopes of a top-four finish alive. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team have looked toothless in recent weeks in the absence of the injured Marcus Rashford.