Week 36 of the 2015-16 Premier League season is here.
[ MORE: Full TV schedule – Week 36 ]
That’s right, remarkably we have just three weeks to go in the season. I can’t quite believe it either.
With Leicester City on the brink of winning the title, an intense top four battle and a massive scrap between three teams for the final two relegation spots, it’s going to be madness.
Here’s a look at the top five Premier League storylines you should be keeping on eye on this weekend.
Foxes can clinch – (Manchester United vs. Leicester City, Sunday, 9:05 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra)
“Now is the real chance to win the title. Next season you never know what happens. Once in a life.”
Those were the words of Claudio Ranieri ahead of Leicester’s trip to Old Trafford. The Italian manager knows he’s on the brink of immortality. The Foxes need just three points from their remaining three games to secure the title but they will be under no illusion that Manchester United will roll over this Sunday. Oh no. Despite reports of United’s fans offering up their season tickets in the home end for Leicester fans to potentially see their team win the title, there will be no such gesture of goodwill from Louis van Gaal and his players.
United have won six of the last eight in the PL, have reached the FA Cup final and Van Gaal needs a top four finish to realistically be around next season. They need a win. Yes, Leicester is without Jamie Vardy but Ranieri always seems to find a way of re-energizing this team. He really won’t have to say much this weekend. It’s simple: “beat Manchester United at Old Trafford and you are champions of the Premier League. You will go down in history forever.”
With Wayne Rooney pulling the strings in midfield, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford a threat in-behind Leicester and David De Gea in top form, Leicester will face a tough test. Then again, every week we write them off and they just keep winning.
Bitter Chelsea ready to battle – (Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur, Monday, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra)
Speaking of the PL title, remember who the reigning champs are? This is awkward. Of course, it’s Chelsea. Following Jose Mourinho’s midseason departure after a disastrous start to the campaign saw the Blues languishing just above the drop zone, Guus Hiddink has steadied the ship with a top 10 finish at least keeping things respectable ahead of Antonio Conte’s summer arrival.
That said, plenty of Chelsea’s players seem to have played themselves out of Conte’s plans in recent weeks with turgid performances. They won’t be lacking in effort on Monday, though, as the Blues are desperate to make sure that if Leicester slip up then London rival Tottenham don’t take advantage of it.
With Mauricio Pochettino confirming he has verbally agreed a new contract at Tottenham ahead of this game, all is rosy as Spurs. They have a new stadium on the way, a talented a hungry young squad and are making real progress under Pochettino as they’ll be in the UEFA Champions League next season. Chelsea is jealous, envious and maybe a little bitter to see their London rivals challenging for the PL. Eden Hazard has said the players will do their utmost to make sure Spurs don’t beat them on Monday. Expect an intense London battle at Stamford Bridge, a ground that hasn’t been a happy hunting ground (their last league win at Chelsea came in 1990) for Tottenham in the past.
Wenger under pressure – (Arsenal vs. Norwich City, Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via Live Extra)
Arsene Wenger hit back at Arsenal’s critics ahead of this game but the fans are starting to stay away from the Emirates and that is bad news from the Frenchman.
After two decades in charge, any Arsenal fan will thank Wenger for what he has done for the club. However, the growing feeling from many is that they want a change. Wenger hasn’t delivered the PL since 2004 and this season their title charge crumbled. They should have won it. Leicester and Tottenham are not superior to them, at least on paper, but Wenger’s side showed a mental fragility at a pivotal point of the season and now they’re challenging for fourth place instead of the title.
When the season is over Arsenal’s board will have to take a long, hard look at what’s next. With empty seat in their last home game, Wenger insisted it isn’t a problem. He can’t keep burying his head in the sand.
Pardew to be a villain? – (Newcastle United vs. Crystal Palace, Saturday, 10 a.m. ET on USA and online via Live Extra)
Alan Pardew led Newcastle to the top five and the quarterfinals of the UEFA Europa League. He also had them embroiled in a relegation battle and had an up-and-down relationship with the fans during his time in charge at St James’ Park.
When he returns with his Crystal Palace side this Saturday he will get a mixed reception. The Eagles have won just once in the PL in 2016 and sit on 39 points and not out of relegation trouble themselves even if it seems very unlikely they’ll go down. Their run to the FA Cup final has been a distraction but there will be plenty of focus from Rafael Benitez and Newcastle. They know the next two games is their chance to save themselves.
Newcastle are three games unbeaten and host an out of sorts Palace and then travel to Aston Villa. They must win those two games to give themselves a chance of staying up. If Pardew leads Palace to victory at St James’ he may just have to stay in the locker room for a while after the final whistle has blown…
With Sunderland away at Stoke and Norwich away at Arsenal this weekend, the Magpies know a win could see them leapfrog both and get out of the relegation zone. That would be huge as their confidence continues to build under Benitez. Is it too little too late, though? Look at the situation above. It is tight.
Top 4 battle intense
West Ham United face a tricky trip to West Bromwich Albion on Saturday (10 a.m. ET on Premier League Extratime and online via Live Extra), while Manchester United host Leicester City and Manchester City travel to top six chasing Southampton on Sunday (11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra). West Ham, United and City are all battling it out with Arsenal for the final two Champions League spots.
Nobody can afford to slip up.
As we mentioned, United are looking strong and although West Ham have lost just one of their last 10 games they’ve also drawn four of their last five to curtail their progress. City drew 0-0 with Real Madrid in midweek and may have one eye on the return leg at the Santiago Bernabeu next Wednesday. Can Manuel Pellegrini afford to rest key players like Kevin De Bruyne, Vincent Kompany and Joe Hart ahead of that game?
The top four battle will likely go down to the wire and its likely one of the contenders will slip up this weekend with tough games for all four.