Liverpool, Man City to make intentions known; Son to shine in Kane's absence
W2W4 previews the weekend's Premier League fixtures and highlights five key storylines.
What will we learn about Man City and Liverpool
What now for Manchester City and Pep Guardiola? After Wednesday's defeat and departure from the Champions League, all that realistically remains is the FA Cup and ensuring they finish in the top four. Not insignificant goals for many, but for City and Guardiola, a little underwhelming. Similarly for Liverpool, their only remaining target is one of those Champions League places, the difference being that was their primary aim for the campaign. This is, in theory, the biggest game of the weekend, but while both clubs have Arsenal snapping at their heels (if you think Arsenal do anything as dynamic as snap), there might not be a great deal that can be gleaned about either side.
A win for Liverpool will only serve as further evidence of their competence against the better sides in the division, while their weakness against the lesser lights remains a quandary. The best City can really ask for is maintaining the minimum, staying in the top four and hoping for better next season. While technically a Champions League place is at stake (Arsenal are five points behind Liverpool and six back from City, with games in hand), there is a sense that both teams are now gearing up for next season, rather than focusing their efforts on this one. It could be a slightly curious game.
Can Son shine in Kane's absence?
When Tottenham lost at Liverpool earlier in the season, the big conclusion reached from their performance was that, while Mauricio Pochettino's first XI is one of the strongest in the Premier League, options beyond that are thin. This weekend will be the first of a few without the most irreplaceable player in their squad, Harry Kane, felled with another ankle ligament injury. Despite Vincent Janssen's belated discovery of the net in the FA Cup last weekend, scoring his first Tottenham goal from open play against an outclassed Millwall, the smart money is on Son Heung-min starting up front in Kane's place. Son helped himself to a hat trick against Millwall and has seven league goals this season, but all of them have come when someone else has filled the centre-forward role. Tottenham need him to fix that record this weekend against Southampton.
Middlesbrough could be freed from Karanka's shackles
In the end, the only real debate over Aitor Karanka's dismissal as Middlesbrough manager was the timing. With only 11 games of the season remaining and Boro second-bottom of the table, it might be too late to halt the club's slide straight back into the Championship, particularly given the positive impact that clubs like Hull City and Swansea have enjoyed since making their own changes earlier in the season. Still, Boro are only three points from safety and if any club in the Premier League needed a change -- any change -- it's them. Karanka's "patient" playing style was getting them nowhere, and their anaemic attack (they've scored just 19 all season) was at least in part a result of a manager whose desire for control was stymieing his team. Steve Agnew, part of Karanka's coaching staff, will be in charge for Sunday's visit of Manchester United, and Boro will hope they have released Karanka's shackles just in time.
Can Leicester's revival continue at West Ham?
The promising thing about Leicester's win over Sevilla in the Champions League was not just the victory, but the style of play in which they managed it. This looked like the Leicester of last season: direct, rapid and relentless. And despite Jamie Vardy's "catalysing" role in reducing the Spanish side to 10 men, they thoroughly deserved that success. The trip to West Ham this weekend will provide its own challenges, but one they have dealt with pretty well this season. They haven't lost any of their games immediately after a European fixture, so while not many things have gone right domestically in this curious season, riding the wave of Champions League success has been one of them. A win over West Ham could put them six points clear of the relegation zone and, you would think, fairly safe from trouble.
This could be the end for Sunderland
Bottom of the table, six points from safety, after Karanka's dismissal, Sunderland are the only club in the Premier League's bottom six not to change managers since the start of the season. The decision to stick with David Moyes could prove fateful, but then again we all know relegation has been coming for some time. It could be effectively confirmed on Saturday, if it isn't already: Burnley are the visitors to the Stadium of Light, resplendent in mid-table safety but still with only one point to show for their efforts away from home this season. If Sunderland cannot even beat the traveling Clarets, about as convincing away from Turf Moor as Sean Dyche would be attempting the soprano parts in an opera, then they truly are doomed.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.