Unusually shorn of Premier League action, Game Week 30 was saved from becoming a ‘non-entity’ by one standout event. With Newcastle stuck firmly in the relegation zone, the proverbial axe finally fell on Steve McLaren with a grim finality, ending eight months of misery on Tyneside and heralding a new era of optimism for the Geordie faithful.
There can be no doubt that Rafael Benitez has his work cut out. The fixture computer once again excelled itself, sending Benitez to leaders Leicester for his Newcastle bow, with a Tyne-Wear derby against Sunderland providing his home debut.
The atmosphere in that match should provide the Newcastle players with the psychological surge they need after six straight derby defeats, but potential heroes are hard to identify in GW31, providing fantasy managers with several focal points away from the cauldron of St James’ Park.
1/2. Hugo Lloris & Christian Eriksen – vs Bournemouth (H)
Barring an improbable surge from the bottom four teams, AFC Bournemouth are now safe for another season. The professionalism of Eddie Howe’s men has never been in doubt, but the Cherries now have very little for which to play.
By contrast, Tottenham remain firmly in title contention, and the defence has improved upon its ability to neutralise the counter attack – hence the surge to second place. In the attacking half, Eriksen remains Tottenham’s danger man.
3. Gareth McAuley – vs Norwich (H)
West Bromwich’s defensive quartet is one of the most compact and well-familiarised in the league, but with Craig Dawson and Jonny Evans both struggling for fitness, the onus falls on Gareth McAuley to marshal the back line.
With consistent performances from McAuley, he is (statistically) West Brom’s second best defender behind Dawson. Ultimately, Saturday represents a straightforward three points for the Baggies against a floundering Norwich side.
4. Ashley Williams – vs Aston Villa (H)
“Straightforward” can also be attributed to any victory, home or away, over Aston Villa’s class of 2016. Now with only pride to play for, the Villans will be bit players for the remainder of the season, displaying a level of apathy seldom seen from a Premier League team in its 24-year history.
Swansea are still far from safe, but Ashley Williams boasts the best defensive statistics, having also been identified as a possible addition to next season’s Manchester United squad by none other than Louis van Gaal’s potential replacement Ryan Giggs.
5. Roberto Firmino – vs Southampton (A)
Although a repeat of Liverpool’s 6-1 rampage in December’s Capital One Cup tie is unlikely, Firmino’s current form is stratospheric. The Brazilian maestro finally appears to have mastered the art of playing in England’s top flight, and his star quality is set to pose many problems for Southampton.
6. Graziano Pelle – vs Liverpool (H)
If ever a footballer needed a TARDIS, it is now. Just six short months ago, Pelle was one of fantasy football’s hottest properties, but his fear factor has now diminished. Lately, it is Southampton’s renewed confidence in defence which has provided the basis of another challenge for a Europa League place.
Due to this situation, a lesser number of rival managers will include him in their playbooks, but it is worth noting that Jurgen Klopp’s attack-minded Liverpool squad may still be recovering from their midweek Europa League tie at Old Trafford come Sunday afternoon.