Wasteful Arsenal head to Manchester United as their own worst enemies
Premier League Spotlight previews the weekend's fixtures and highlights five key points to keep an eye on.
West Ham vs. Sunderland
Leicester vs. Norwich
Southampton vs. Chelsea
Stoke vs. Aston Villa
Watford vs. Bournemouth
West Brom vs. Crystal Palace
Man Utd vs. Arsenal
Tottenham vs. Swansea
1. Will Arsenal find their shooting boots at Old Trafford?
Arsenal's biggest threat to the club not winning the 2015-16 Premier League title is themselves. Right now, their finishing is atrocious, with Arsene Wenger's side failing to find the back of the net in five of their last eight matches in all competitions. In that run there have been games they should have won, yet various players have clammed up in key moments. Their late 2-1 win over leaders Leicester City on Feb. 14 did not need to be so dramatic, for they'd already spurned several openings. Why is this happening? Well, you could argue that the players are tensing up, snatching at their shots, due to the growing emphasis on these moments as the pressure of the title race takes hold.
Having ice in your veins is what separates champions from would-be champions. Wenger has at his disposal some better-than-average finishers: Alexis Sanchez, Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey, for example. But they are not functioning to their maximum, which leads to question marks over the preparation they are receiving. In October, Arsenal's shooting was devastating when they scored three times in the first 19 minutes against Manchester United. The Gunners need a repeat of such a clinical display at Old Trafford on Sunday, or otherwise face slipping out of a title race they only just clawed their way back into.
2. How will Leicester respond to their late heartbreak?
Speaking after what must have felt like a colossal kick in the stomach, Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri was measured. The Italian coach said in the wake of the loss at Arsenal: "We must carry on and smile." Ranieri had taken heart from another outstanding performance from his overachieving players, one that arguably would have ended in at least a draw had Danny Simpson not been sent off.
Ranieri's side are still top of the table, albeit by two points rather than four, and midfielder N'Golo Kante had again been tremendous. The Foxes go into Saturday's game at home to a dreadful Norwich team having had 13 days' rest. To think that players like Kante and Jamie Vardy will be recharged should terrify Norwich, who are teetering above the relegation after conceding 50 goals in 26 fixtures this season.
3. Are Tottenham the most likeable side in the division?
Tottenham are currently a hard team to dislike. After their significant 2-1 win at Manchester City, head coach Mauricio Pochettino went about embracing his players, hugging each of them and roaring words of encouragement into their ears. The squad responded with open arms, reiterating the unity their Argentine boss has forged at White Hart Lane. Pochettino has earned a willing respect from his players, who look prepared to run through walls for him and their teammates.
If this mentality can be maintained then Tottenham can win the title and for once finish above Arsene Wenger's Arsenal in the Premier League table. Spurs go in search of a sixth straight top-flight win when they host Swansea on Sunday. Whether their typically insatiable energy levels are on show will be of note off the back of playing in the Europa League on Thursday, after they exited the FA Cup to Crystal Palace last weekend following their trip to Fiorentina.
4. How high can watertight Southampton finish in the table?
The sign of a very good manager is one who is able to solve a problem. From Nov. 21 to Jan. 9, Southampton won one of their 10 matches in all competitions, losing eight. Since then, the Saints have won five of their last six, conceding no goals in that time. Ronald Koeman is, therefore, a very good manager. This upturn in form has lifted the club from 13th to sixth in the table, a point off Manchester United and above much-praised West Ham.
After flirting with being sucked into a relegation fight, Southampton's focus is now upwards and again qualifying for Europe. "We have a great run at the moment. It's a pity we have a break," Koeman said after a 1-0 win at Swansea ahead of a 14-day wait to return to action at home to Chelsea this Saturday.
5. Is Tony Pulis the right man for West Brom?
Is enduring terrible football really worth avoiding demotion to the Championship? West Brom boss Tony Pulis does what he does well: he makes a team hard to beat and thus ultimately does enough to attain survival. What he doesn't do is make them enjoyable to watch. West Brom fans have witnessed less than a goal a game this season, and that's depressing.
They did claim a shock 1-0 win at Everton last time out in the Premier League, but the result was via their only shot on target, having gone three of their previous four matches without even managing one. Pulis' current contract at The Hawthorns expires in 2017, and this week he was non-committal about his future. A parting of ways in the summer would not come as a surprise.
James Dall is an associate editor at ESPN FC. You can follow him on Twitter @JamesDallESPN.