Alexis Sanchez's return is timely for Arsenal in must-win vs. Chelsea
Premier League Spotlight previews the weekend's fixtures and highlights five key points to keep an eye on.
Norwich vs. Liverpool
Crystal Palace vs. Tottenham
Leicester vs. Stoke
Man Utd vs. Southampton
Sunderland vs. Bournemouth
Watford vs. Newcastle
West Brom vs. Aston Villa
West Ham vs. Man City
Everton vs. Swansea
Arsenal vs. Chelsea
1. Is it time to unleash Alexis Sanchez?
Last week, before Arsenal went to Stoke City and drew 0-0, manager Arsene Wenger said something which stopped the hearts of some Gunners supporters: "The decision we have to take is whether to take a gamble or not on his injury."
Wenger was discussing Alexis Sanchez's condition, the Chilean not playing since picking up what seemed like an inevitable hamstring injury in November's very underwhelming draw at Norwich. Risking Sanchez and seeing it backfire at Stoke, in particular ahead of this Sunday's game at home to Chelsea, would have been peak Wenger.
But something else happened. Wenger didn't take a "gamble" on his best goal scorer's fitness and his depleted squad subsequently did enough to come away from the Britannia with a commendable point that kept them top of the table. But the Gunners lacked creativity and penetration at Stoke. The good news for Wenger is that Mesut Ozil is back to supply the former while Sanchez is available to give the team the latter. After acceptable but not ideal results at Liverpool and Stoke, Arsenal need to beat champions Chelsea and doing so will be a darn sight easier with Sanchez in the side.
2. Will Liverpool defend a set piece properly?
Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp is under pressure to heal his side's set-piece ills. Heck, even former Reds boss Brendan Rodgers is twisting the knife: "When you're conceding goals -- and as Klopp can see, Liverpool are conceding goals far too easily -- you have to intervene at some point."
The statistics are damning, with nine goals conceded from set pieces in the Premier League this season. That's a third of their total. Of course, lest we forget Rodgers was manager of this team up until October...
Anyway, the task now lies with Klopp to make the Reds more organised and aggressive on set plays, starting on Saturday lunchtime at Norwich, a team who have scored 24 times all season with seven of those coming from set pieces.
3. Is Wayne Rooney really back?
Manchester United striker Wayne Rooney has not been very good. He went two-and-a-half months without scoring a Premier League goal this season, while his general play was stodgy and not befitting of someone who is said to earn £300,000-a-week ($423,252). What felt like an eternity without a top flight goal was ended in style against Swansea on Jan. 2 and since then he's scored for four games running in all competitions, including a brace at Newcastle. This is no question an improvement, but is it enough? Bearing in mind his pay packet, the answer is probably not if you also factor in his performances when not sticking the ball in the net. Scoring the winner at the home of your bitter rivals buys you patience but a more all-round display is needed at home to Southampton.
4. Are Leicester running out of gas?
Leicester City's recent form can be spun one of two ways.
The glass half empty: The Foxes have won just one of their past five games, failing to score in three of those and even failing to beat bottom of the table Aston Villa. One of their star men, Riyad Mahrez, also missed penalties in draws that should have been turned into wins. They've blown their chance at turning something wonderful into something even more magnificent.
The glass half full: They have lost one of their past six games, defeating Tottenham on their own turf and holding title rivals Manchester City to a goalless draw. They are, alarmingly, only denied a place at the summit on goal difference and have dug in defensively while their attack has ebbed. Claudio Ranieri's men host Stoke this weekend, before facing Liverpool, City and Arsenal in fixtures that would have been dubbed daunting before the start of 2015-16.
5. How much of a bargain is Charlie Austin?
A lot of football fans did a double take last Saturday. Charlie Austin had completed his transfer from Queens Park Rangers to Southampton for a fee reported to be £4 million. Wait, four million pounds sterling? In today's market when, say, someone like Wilfried Bony cost Manchester City £28m, that figure seemed a misprint even if the Englishman's contract was due to expire in the summer. Austin scored 18 Premier League goals in the 2014-15 season when QPR were relegated. That figure is all the more impressive when you consider the service QPR's motley crew was providing.
With Ronald Koeman's Saints far more competent, Austin's signature could ensure their mini revival of back-to-back wins is not short-term and a relegation scrap will be avoided. Watch out, Old Trafford.
James Dall is an associate editor at ESPN FC. You can follow him on Twitter @JamesDallESPN.