With leaders Leicester visiting Arsenal, and Manchester City hosting Tottenham, Game Week 26 is set to be by far the most pivotal of the season.
Not since Leeds United’s surge to the 1992 title has there been such potential for a huge upset, and the Foxes have played like worthy champions from the moment they strode onto the pitch against Sunderland back in August, for Claudio Ranieri’s first game as Leicester boss.
With the pressure firmly on Arsenal, the outcome of Sunday’s focal match is impossible to predict, meaning that the peripheral fixtures become the key battleground for a surge as an unbelievable season approaches its final third.
1. Mark Stekelenburg – vs Swansea (A)
Under Francesco Guidolin, Swansea City have been exceptionally difficult to break down as a team, with their one weakness being set pieces – an issue which the league’s newest manager has vowed to address prior to Swansea’s next fixture.
Five points from the first nine is a pleasing return for the Italian, but an in-form Southampton are set to cause an array of problems.
At present, Stekelenburg is marshalling his defence with as much professionalism and craft as his record-breaking countryman Edwin van der Saar, who attained 1,311 clean sheet minutes during 2008/09, and his confidence will be stratospheric ahead of Southampton’s trip to Swansea.
2. Alexander Kolarov – vs Tottenham (H)
Tottenham have the chance to complete a league double over a beleaguered Manchester City squad that saw its own title ambitions severely dented by a rampant Leicester team. Naturally, both sides will be cautious in the opening minutes, but it is important (for City’s sake) that the hosts are not drawn in to the opposition’s game and stretched to disastrous effect.
Clear cut chances are unlikely to be plentiful in this match, meaning that Kolarov’s influence on set pieces may be a deciding factor.
3. Aaron Lennon – vs West Brom (H)
With a first trio of 3-0 wins since 1937, Everton have advanced to the fifth round of the FA Cup and entered the top half of the table for the first time this calendar year.
For the blue half of Merseyside it represents a pleasing turn of form and fortune after a frustrating sequence of draws and avoidable defeats, and Lennon’s recent performances have been nothing short of exquisite.
Stuck firmly in mid table, the Baggies have precious little to play for, while Everton remain in theoretical contention for fifth place and Europa League qualification. With his high pace and work rate, Lennon is set to make an impact yet again.
4. Memphis Depay – vs Sunderland (A)
Sunderland have been dogged by a lack of pace all season, making the presence of Memphis Depay a daunting prospect for the Black Cats to face as they remain prime candidates for relegation.
It is, however, worth noting that he may be deployed as a late ‘impact sub’, with his pace utilised at a time when Sunderland’s inferior fitness levels begin to manifest.
5. Dimitri Payet – vs Norwich (A)
Very much the ‘forgotten man’ due to long term injury, Payet has not enjoyed sufficient playing time to build on the promise he showed back in the autumn, but a game against Norwich should provide ample opportunity for the French winger to show his true colours once again.
Simply put, Alex Neil’s Norwich City is a team in disarray. All three promoted sides lost in GW 25, but the Canaries were by far the most inept, proving themselves utterly clueless and bereft of ideas in a 2-0 defeat at Villa Park to the Premier League’s basement club.
The term ‘away banker’ is rarely used, but this is one occasion on which it can be applied with great confidence.
6. James Milner – vs Aston Villa (A)
The Reds have an excellent Premier League record in this part of the midlands, but there is no room for complacency from any of the 22 players that grace the Villa Park turf this weekend.
Liverpool’s abject surrender of two points in GW 25 merely served to underline the continuing problems that lie in the Anfield club’s defence, meaning that maturity and responsibility will be the key to victory over Aston Villa. As such, ex-Villan James Milner should provide the edge needed to ensure a positive result for Jürgen Klopp’s men.