Premier League: 10 things to look out for this weekend

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Manchester United may go for jugular against Liverpool, Morgan Schneiderlin must settle quickly at Everton and Ahmed Musa has chance to shine for Leicester

1) Will United go for the jugular against Liverpool?

Manchester United were on the receiving end of heavy criticism when they shut up shop and successfully played for a 0-0 draw when they visited Liverpool in October. It was a classic exercise in parking the bus from an unapologetic Jos Mourinho, who reasoned that a cautious approach was necessary against a team who regularly overwhelm their opponents with blistering attacking play. But while it was possible to grudgingly respect Mourinhos plan, there is no need for the United manager to play it safe at Old Trafford on Sunday. Although United are unlikely to veer too far away from pragmatism this is a Mourinho side, after all it is reasonable to expect them to play with enhanced adventure, given that they are riding high after nine successive wins in all competitions, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic scoring consistently, Paul Pogba beginning to excel in midfield, Marcus Rashford spreading panic in opposition defences, Henrikh Mkhitaryan creating and Juan Mata continuing to chip in with important goals. Victory would lift them two points behind Jrgen Klopps side, so this is no time for timidity. JS

2) Who will be hit hardest by absences through Africa Cup of Nations?

No other Premier League team has lost more players to the Africa Cup of Nations than Sunderland or Stoke City. For David Moyess side, Lamine Kon, Didier Ndong and Wahbi Khazri have departed to join Ivory Coast, Gabon and Tunisia respectively, while Wilfried Bony, Mame Biram Diouf and Ramadan Sobhi have also flown the coop. Who will feel the absences harder? Kon remains Sunderlands best defender, despite their encouraging displays without him in the past two matches, and he will be sorely missed against a physical strike force likely to consist of Peter Crouch and Jonathan Walters. Should these two be repelled, Sunderland will fancy their chances at home against a Stoke side lacking in other attacking options with Bojan reportedly the subject of a bid from Middlesbrough and a defence who have shipped 11 goals in the last three games on the road. MB

Sunderlands David Moyes will be without key players against another side his by absences because of Africa Cup of Nations duty, Stoke City. Photograph: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

3) Can West Brom finally beat one of their betters?

West Bromwich Albion are perhaps the quietest success story in the Premier League this season. Six wins in their last 10 games have taken them from towards the iffy end of the table at the end of October, to eighth and sitting relatively pretty now. But theyre still 10 points behind Manchester United in sixth and 12 back from Arsenal in fifth, so a run at the European places seems rather unlikely, and thats at least partly down to their record against the better teams in the division. The draw against Tottenham Hotspur earlier in the season is the only time theyve taken a point from anyone currently above them in the table, which, given their relative resources, is not a huge surprise. But this season Bournemouth have beaten Liverpool, as have Burnley. Leicester have beaten Manchester City. Watford have beaten Manchester United. It doesnt necessarily have to be the unquestioning status quo that the biggest clubs just win games and those beneath them should just chalk them off as lost causes. Given their decent record against Tottenham (Spurs have only beaten them once in the past three years), if they are to progress beyond where they currently are, they could do with adding a few scalps to go with victories against those in the bottom half of the table. NM

4) Southampton need to find some consistency in the league

Southampton are a curious side this season. Their run to the EFL Cup semi-final, possibly the final should they hold on to their lead over Liverpool, has been achieved at least in part because they have a pretty even level of quality in their squad. Their second string isnt a massive step down from their first-choice XI, so when teams ring the changes for the games deemed less important, Claude Puels side is less affected. The question then becomes whether that level of quality is quite good enough in the league because on the basis of their recent games it hasnt been. Before the cup interval they had lost three games in a row, including a strange performance against Tottenham in which they were excellent for 20 minutes but departed the field in mind and spirit, if not body, after that. Their consistency in talent seems to be their strength but their inconsistency in performances their weakness. Now its important to show this level in all of our games in the Premier League, Puel said after the victory over Liverpool. At least hes aware of the problem and the bubbling frustration within their support. NM

5) Will Schneiderlin start for Everton?

There was no harm in finding out whether Morgan Schneiderlin was capable of succeeding at the highest level and no reason for him to be ashamed that he fell short of the standards of excellence demanded by Manchester United. Schneiderlin was one of the leagues outstanding midfielders during his time at Southampton, impressing with his interceptions, energy and ability to drive from box to box, and United could not be accused of acting foolishly when they signed him in the summer of 2015. Although he did not impress during his 18 months at Old Trafford, he remains a fine player and Ronald Koeman, who managed him for a season at Southampton, jumped at the chance of a reunion at Everton, whose rivals can only look on enviously at a smart piece of business. Schneiderlin will need to settle quickly if he makes his debut this weekend though. Manchester City visit Goodison Park on Sunday afternoon and someone needs to keep David Silva quiet. Koeman will trust that Schneiderlin is up to the task. JS

6) How Ibe copes with his latest setback could define his career

When is it going to happen for Jordon Ibe? The 15m summer signing from Liverpool had not started a game for Bournemouth since 5 November (he was withdrawn at half-time at home to Sunderland) and put in a turgid display last week as the Cherries crashed out of the FA Cup, 3-0 to League One Millwall. Afterwards, Eddie Howe labelled Ibes form a disappointment and with so many other players impressing, notably Ryan Fraser, Junior Stanislas and Josh King, it may be some time until Bournemouths most expensive ever player gets another chance. With technical ability and physical attributes to terrify defenders, too often it is Ibes decision-making and final ball that is left wanting. How he must crave a starting place against bottom-placed Hull City, who are still finding their feet under the new manager, Marco Silva. What is much more likely is another Saturday spent on the bench and another few weeks of frustration. At only 21, Ibe still has time to improve but how he mentally copes with this latest setback could define his career. He needs something to happen for him, sharpish. MB

With technical ability and physical attributes to terrify defenders, too often it is Jordon Ibes decision making and final ball that is left wanting Photograph: John Walton/PA

7) Allardyce seeks revenge on his former employers

When it comes to showing Sam Allardyce what he could have had, it is safe to say that the London Stadium comes a distinct second best to the England job. But as he prepares to visit his old clubs new ground for the first time on Saturday afternoon, there can be no doubt that Allardyce would like nothing more than to get one over on West Ham United, who hardly need reminding that Crystal Palaces new manager is a survival expert. Allardyce never seemed likely to join West Ham on their adventure to Stratford and it is almost two years since he left by mutual consent, but he might fancy his chances of earning his first victory with his struggling Palace side, who are sitting a point above the bottom three and need Christian Benteke to rediscover his poise in front of goal. West Ham are still adapting to their new surroundings and while they picked up unconvincing home wins over Burnley and Hull last month, their mood has been punctured by their FA Cup shellacking by Manchester City and news of Dimitri Payets determination to leave this month. This is an excellent opportunity for Palace to inch clear of the bottom three and pull their London rivals back into trouble in the process. JS

8) Arsenal must avoid another slow start

Having finished the festive period eight points behind Chelsea and a place outside the top four, the pressure on Arsenal has gone up a notch or two. Their title challenge is in need of an injection of energy and while they have always found a way to qualify for the Champions League in the past, the competition is tougher this season and there is no room for complacency. Although Arsne Wengers side demonstrated their resolve by recovering from dismal starts against Bournemouth and Preston North End, their initial slackness in both of those games suggests that there needs to be a sharp improvement in their focus when they visit Swansea City, whose players will surely be eager to impress their new manager, Paul Clement, despite their perilous position. JS

9) Musas chance to shine for Leicester City

The Africa Cup of Nations means that Leicester will be without two of their most dangerous attacking players for the next month now that Islam Slimani and Riyad Mahrez have joined up with Algeria. But Nigerias failure to qualify for the tournament could leave a space open for the speedy Ahmed Musa, who has performed patchily since his move from CSKA Moscow in the summer, to establish himself in Claudio Ranieris attack. Musa scored twice as the champions fought back to beat Everton in the FA Cup last weekend and his pace and directness could cause problems for Chelseas back three at the King Power Stadium on Saturday evening. JS

Ahmed Musas pace can pose a threat to Chelsea. Photograph: Media Image – MI News & Sport/PA

10) Middlesbrough must show more ambition

Middlesbrough are the divisions joint lowest goalscorers, their lack of punch in the final third continuing to undermine their commendable defensive organisation and their efforts to avoid an instant return to the Championship. They have not won away from home since beating Sunderland in August and it might be time to worry if they provide a cure for any insomniacs at Vicarage Road on Saturday afternoon. Aitor Karankas men have managed eight goals on their travels this season but they face a Watford side who have picked up one point from their last five games, with Walter Mazzarri fretting about the injury crisis that has thrown his plans into disarray in recent weeks, and the stage is surely set for Middlesbrough to secure a precious win. Another listless away performance would heighten suspicions that Karanka is too negative. JS

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