We have reached that stage of the Premier League season at which there are many relatively meaningless matches or fixtures that bring together sides with something at stake and opponents with very little on the line. Liverpool’s home match against Stoke is a perfect example because one side are in a comfort zone and the other is desperate for points. Bookmakers price up these matches based on reputation rather than the need to win or at least avoid defeat.
Stoke are a perennial mid-table safety outfit and they have finished ninth in the Premier League in the last three seasons. Mark Hughes was well-liked and everything in the garden seemed rosy. However, it all went per-shaped and Stoke are now in the relegation mire. Hughes was sacked and he moved to Southampton who are also now in the bottom three. Stoke and Southampton are two of the three times who have not won a match in five fixtures and Swansea are the third.
If Southampton and Stoke are relegated Hughes will have been the manager of two of the teams that dropped into the Championship in the same season which is hardly an endorsement of his managerial skills. His 2017/18 season highlights the cult of the manager. Chairman grasp at straws and pluck familiar names out of a hat when they are facing the nightmare scenario of relegation. Everton did it with Sam Allardyce and although he got the job done there is very little joy at Goodison Park.
Stoke are drinking out of the last chance saloon so you can understand a cautious approach and a point at Anfield could be worth its weight in gold. On Monday night Everton played Newcastle at home and there was nothing at stake. Both managers approached the match as if it was critical and there was one shot on goal in 90 minutes. If I’d travelled from Newcastle to Liverpool on a Monday night I would be disgusted by my team’s performance which was joyless but Rafa Benitez will be forgiven because he has saved Newcastle from the drop.
It’s human nature to suffer mental letdown after a big occasion. Liverpool were brilliant against Roma in the Champions League on Tuesday but now they host Stoke with not much incentive. Strictly speaking they need one more win to qualify for next season’s Champions League but in reality that’s in the bag. It’s a question of a clearly superior team with little incentive playing at home against a team who must avoid defeat. In this case class should prevail and a Liverpool win is expected.
Swansea has had a topsy-turvy season. They were hopeless early on, recovered under a new manager but have lost two and drawn three of their last five fixtures. Chelsea are five points behind Tottenham in the race for fourth place so in theory that issue has not been decided. Tottenham are at home to Watford on Monday and the visitors are safe from the drop. In this case the inferior team can pick up three points because Swansea should have the hunger and desire to beat Chelsea.
Manchester United at home to Arsenal was the major dust-up 10 years ago but Sunday’s match is a non-event. United will finish second or third and Arsenal will finish sixth. It will be Arsene Wenger’s last match as manager of Arsenal at Old Trafford but other than that the result doesn’t matter so a draw could be the outcome. There is a similar scenario when West Ham play Manchester City at the Olympic Stadium but City should stroll to another victory. Stoke are the team in most need of points this weekend.