W2W4: Can Kane surpass Messi? Will Man United get over their slump?
The frantic festive fixture schedule cranks up a gear with the Boxing Day matches. There's plenty to watch out for, including another record for Tottenham's main man ...
Will Kane beat Shearer and Messi?
It has been a phenomenal 2017 for Harry Kane, who equalled Alan Shearer's Premier League record of 36 goals in a calendar year with his hat trick against Burnley on Saturday. Remarkably, it was the seventh time the striker has scored three or more goals in a single game in 2017, while he now stands just one strike behind Lionel Messi's total of 54 goals over the past year.
Can he surpass Shearer and Messi when Southampton visit Wembley? To some, such records don't mean an awful lot, but it would be a brilliant achievement for Kane to not only surpass Shearer -- and in seven fewer matches -- but also see out the year as the top marksman in Europe. It wasn't long ago the 24-year-old was dubbed a one-season wonder; how quiet those naysayers are now after his exploits over the past three-and-a-half seasons.
Kane's tally against Southampton, who Spurs face on Boxing Day, is actually one of his least prolific returns against an individual club, with two strikes in five matches. But with Virgil van Dijk a surprise omission from the Saints' squad in the draw with Huddersfield, and rumoured to be on his way out, the England forward will surely fancy his chances against a defence that left Laurent Depoitre completely unmarked to snatch an equaliser for the Terriers at the weekend.
Kane's story is one of sheer dedication, both on his part and the coaches at Tottenham who helped him reach this level. Although a run of goals came towards the back end of his loan at Millwall in 2011-12, similar spells at Norwich and Leicester suggested he was destined to build his career at a lower level. But Tim Sherwood gave Kane his chance with a string of appearances in 2013-14, and Mauricio Pochettino spotted the striker's potential at the start of 2014-15, carefully easing him into the starting lineup in what proved to be his breakthrough season.
As the goals have continued to flow, so has Kane's commitment to his craft. He avoids the limelight craved by some of his peers, abstains from alcohol during the season, and has hired his own personal chef to provide the best sports nutrition. That is what it takes to be a record-breaker.
It seems almost impossible to discuss Kane's talents without mentioning talk of £150 million valuations and interest from Real Madrid but, should he find his historic goal at Wembley, it will be a celebration for everyone involved in his journey so far. For Spurs fans, there is little more rewarding in football than to see one of your own blaze a trail for the rest to follow. And while the title may already be gone for Tottenham this season, if Kane can achieve such impressive individual feats at the club, it may convince him and his teammates that they are in the best place to mount a new challenge next year and pursue Champions League glory in the current campaign.
Can Man United get over their slump?
Jose Mourinho didn't expect Manchester United to suffer a hangover from their midweek Carabao Cup exit to Championship side Bristol City, but by the postmatch inquest into the 2-2 draw at Leicester he was labelling his players "childish" for the manner in which they threw away the lead.
It's not unusual for Mourinho to be critical of his players, but you wonder how much benefit there is to this approach when the gap at the top now stands at 13 points. The danger of such a tactic is that it crushes the players' confidence -- would Henrikh Mkhitaryan have passed instead of shooting when through on goal, as he did against Leicester, had he been assured of his manager's faith over the past few months?
Herein lies the greater risk of Mourinho's approach, and perhaps the reason many feel his magic touch has been lost. Footballers in 2017 have a different nature to the teams he enjoyed so much success with in the past. Using the stick instead of the carrot hasn't worked with Mkhitaryan or Luke Shaw at United, nor did it have the desired effect with Kevin De Bruyne or, initially at least, Romelu Lukaku at Chelsea. There will surely be members of the squad who believe collective responsibility should be shared between the players and staff, rather than it always being them who are to blame.
The upshot is a sombre mood at the club ahead of Burnley's visit on Boxing Day. Sean Dyche's side left Old Trafford with a 0-0 draw last season, and they may feel it is the ideal time to be heading back.
Are Stoke on the road to recovery?
Mark Hughes continues to dismiss talk of his job being on the line at Stoke, but it is difficult to deny just how much he needed the morale-boosting 3-1 win over West Brom. The result lifted the Potters to 14th and, somewhat incredibly, they could jump into the top 10 if they pick up a second victory on the spin away to Huddersfield.
That hints that an 11-team relegation battle is slowly unfolding in the top flight this season, with Watford dropping like a stone and clinging to 10th by their fingernails at the moment. For Hughes and Stoke, the experience of having been in this sort of situation many times before could be telling. It wasn't pretty against West Brom, but it was effective. The same pragmatism will be required against the Terriers.
Is there any hope for Swansea?
The Premier League's joint second-best attack against the division's worst; Liverpool have scored 30 more goals than Swansea by the halfway stage as they prepare to host the bottom club on Boxing Day.
Caretaker boss Leon Britton will probably be spending his Christmas Day studying what Everton and West Brom did to escape Anfield with a point recently, and wishing that Tuesday brings another occasion when Jurgen Klopp's rotation doesn't quite go to plan. The thought of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Philippe Coutinho driving at the defence is enough to put any Swans supporter off their turkey.
But it should be remembered that Swansea did earn a 3-2 victory in this fixture last season under Paul Clement. Of course, it was thanks for Fernando Llorente's brace and Gylfi Sigurdsson's winner, but festive football has thrown up plenty of surprises before and may well do again.
Who will lead the line for Manchester City?
Sergio Aguero may guarantee goals but that isn't enough to guarantee the striker a place in Manchester City's first XI anymore. Pep Guardiola praised Aguero after his brace against Bournemouth, but also hinted that a decision on his future won't be long in coming. It's clear to anyone that a player of the Argentine's ability cannot be expected to wait patiently for his opportunities.
If Gabriel Jesus returns to lead the line at Newcastle, who picked up a spirited victory at West Ham over the weekend, then it will reinforce the changing of the guard at City despite Aguero's record-breaking feats for the club.
Matthew Stanger covers European football for ESPN and is the editor of The Set Pieces. Twitter: @MatthewStanger