Fixture pileup a concern as Premier League title contenders look to juggle European commitments

AP , Thursday 11 Apr 2024

For the three contenders in the Premier League title race, any dropped points from this stage could be fatal.

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Manchester City s players celebrate English midfielder #47 Phil Foden injured leaves the pitch during the UEFA Champions League quarter final first leg football match between Real Madrid CF and Manchester City at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid on April 9, 2024. AFP

 

The danger could be greater than ever for Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City this weekend.

On the face of it, the games don’t appear too difficult — Arsenal, the leader on goal difference with seven rounds remaining, is at home to an Aston Villa team in fifth place but going through a difficult spell. Second-place Liverpool hosts Crystal Palace, which has just one win since January, and third-place Manchester City — a point further back — is also at home to third-to-last Luton.

The peril is present, however, because this weekend’s schedule comes between two-legged quarterfinals in the Champions League and Europa League — and Arsenal, Liverpool and City all have testing examinations in Europe.

Arsenal could be most at threat. Juggling domestic and European competition is a new thing for this squad and manager Mikel Arteta may choose to rotate some players against Villa on Sunday for a match that comes between home-and-away legs against Bayern Munich in the Champions League.

They play the second leg in Munich on Wednesday and the score at the halfway stage is delicately poised at 2-2. Does Bukayo Saka, whose fitness is already in question, get a rest? What about someone like captain Martin Odegaard, who has started all 15 of Arsenal’s games in 2024 and even started both of Norway’s games in last month’s international fixtures?

This was the time of the year when Arsenal imploded in last season's title race — and that was without having European commitments.

Villa might have won just one of its last five league matches but is still on course to qualify for next season’s Champions League and poses a real danger on the counterattack away from home through Ollie Watkins, the second-highest scorer in the league with 18 goals, and the likes of Leon Bailey and Moussa Diaby.

Villa, however, also is still in European competition and faces Lille in the Europa Conference League over two legs in the quarterfinals.

City is the other English team in the Champions League but has mastered the art of pacing itself through these intense final few months of seasons. With its quarterfinal match against Real Madrid standing at 3-3 before the second leg in Manchester also on Wednesday, Guardiola looks sure to ring the changes in the team, with an injury-ravaged Luton perhaps the ideal opponent to do so against. City beat Luton 6-2 away in the FA Cup in February.

Rodri has already spoken publicly about needing a rest and players like John Stones, coming back from an injury on international duty with England, and Phil Foden, who came off with an ankle problem at the Santiago Bernabeu on Tuesday, might be among those left out. Kevin De Bruyne missed the Madrid game because he was sick before kickoff, so his health will be assessed.

This is the period of the season where squad strength is key. City’s has long been powerful while Arsenal has made great strides this season, bringing in the likes of Declan Rice and Kai Havertz and playing with more control in games to conserve energy — as City does so well under Guardiola.

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp is also blessed with deep resources, aided this season with the emergence of a slew of young talents who have transitioned seamlessly into the first team and helped the club win the English League Cup amid an injury crisis.

The Palace game comes between home-and-away legs against Atalanta in the Europa League. Given it is now the quarterfinal stage, Klopp may choose to field a stronger team in Europe and it remains to be seen how that affects Liverpool’s Premier League challenge.

After this weekend, the other potential flashpoint when it comes to fixture congestion will be at the start of May — should, of course, Arsenal, City and Liverpool all advance to the semifinals in Europe.

The league games on the weekend of May 4-5 are in the middle of the two legs of the semifinals and the fixture list might favor Arsenal and City there, as they host Bournemouth and Wolverhampton, respectively. Liverpool is at home to Tottenham, which is currently in fourth place and will be hoping to clinch a Champions League qualification spot around then.

(For more sports news and updates, follow Ahram Online Sports on Twitter at @AO_Sports and on Facebook at AhramOnlineSports.)

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