CHAPMAN: Games in hand cause chaos in Premier League races

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The impact of COVID-19 on the English Premier League this season has been devastating and ongoing.

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While the impact on some clubs has been devastating – Tottenham, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal have suffered significantly – others have escaped deep and disruptive outbreaks, including Manchester United and the Manchester City chief. Still, cancellations due to the COVID-19 outbreaks will affect every team to varying degrees.

Chelsea, despite serious absences from some of their most important players, have played the most games with 23 players on the roster. Burnley have only played 17. Not that Burnley have a chance of jostling with Chelsea in the table at the end of the season, but the Clarets are currently bottom on 11 points.

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Watford are safe by three points, but have played two more games than Burnley. Norwich are two points clear of Burnley but have played four more games.

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Now you obviously have to win these matches, or get all you can out of them, but when these matches are played will be key. Ironically, Burnley manager Sean Dyche has been one of the biggest whiners about increasing subs in a game because he doesn’t have the resources of ‘big clubs’.

But now he’s going to face the same demands as clubs who have to negotiate Champions League games because they’re going to stuff midweek games wherever they can, and there will be games where he’s desperate for more submarines.

Watford hosting Norwich on Friday becomes a huge game for both clubs as the Canaries will need to salvage as many points as possible as they have to sit back and watch their rivals make up games at the end of the season while they sweat over security.

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The other big game to watch this weekend is Tottenham and Chelsea. Spurs are coming off a remarkable comeback against Leicester in midweek, down 2-1 in the 94th minute with sixty seconds remaining, they scored twice to win the game. Under new manager Antonio Conte, they have shown remarkable resilience, long seen as a Spurs weakness.

Chelsea are currently eight points clear of Spurs, but Tottenham have four games in hand. If Chelsea – who have won just once in their last five games – lose on Sunday, Spurs will suddenly be just five points behind and with a potential 12 points to play with in their extra games. Things could get dramatic for the Blues in a hurry.

It is the teams’ third meeting this month after Chelsea swept both legs of their Carabao Cup semi-final winning 3-0 and 1-0, but since then the Blues have really had struggled in the league, drawing with Liverpool, twice with Brighton and losing. at Manchester City in their last four matches.

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Another huge game this Saturday to watch is Manchester United hosting West Ham. The Irons hold a two-point lead over United as they cling to that last Champions League spot, but seventh-placed United are one game short. United beat Brentford in midweek 3-1, looking horrible in the first half before turning the tide. The problem with United is not the talent – they have some of the most expensive toys in the league – but their chemistry which is the problem.

Cristiano Ronaldo had a visibly poor reaction after being substituted against Brentford. The Red Devils can’t afford to slide against the East Londoners, with Spurs having so many games in hand and charging, the points against their rivals dropping out for that fourth place are going to be valuable.

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FRIDAY: Watford v Norwich

SATURDAY: Everton v Aston Villa; Brentford v. wolves; Leeds versus Newcastle United; Manchester United versus West Ham; Southampton versus Manchester City.

SUNDAY: Arsenal v Burnley; Crystal Palace versus Liverpool; Leicester v Brighton; Chelsea versus Tottenham.

ITALIAN SERIES A

What an intriguing week in Italy with a suddenly surging Juventus taking on a surging AC Milan side.

Juve have won four out of five and although they are seven points behind second place AC Milan, they are the ones who are shocked by fourth place Atalanta to move back into the Champions League places which are of immediate concern.

Atalanta are a point clear but have a game in hand and travel to Rome to take on Lazio this week.

Another area where Milan and Juve are said to be competing is for the services of underprivileged Arsenal striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

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The 32-year-old striker came up against Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta and with Juve scoring 10 fewer goals than Atalanta, he could be a good choice even on loan.

FRIDAY: Hellas Verona v. Bologna.

SATURDAY: Genoa against Udinese; Inter Milan against Venice; Lazio c. Atalanta.

SUNDAY: Cagliari v. Fiorentina; Napoli vs. Salernitana; Spezia c. Sampdoria; Turin v. Sassuolo; Empol v. Rome; AC Milan against Juventus.

THE SPANISH LIGA

There seems to be a formidable battle brewing in Spain for the final Champions League spot. Currently, it belongs to Atletico Madrid, but there are eight other clubs within six points of last place.

One of them, Valencia, face Atletico this weekend. It’s customary to see the title race fade away in most European leagues and the scrap for Champions League riches to provide the drama, but to see nine clubs come undone for a place is remarkable.

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So far there has been very little transfer activity in Spain in the January window, but there could be some frantic action over the past week. Barcelona need the money and it’s clear winger Ousmane Dembele won’t sign an extension and is free to go where he wants this summer. Expect late offers from across Europe and Barca could be tempted to grab the cash, even though they are in the cutthroat fight for the final Champions League spot.

FRIDAY: Espanyol v Real Betis.

SATURDAY: Levante v. Cadiz; Villarreal vs. Majorca; Sevilla v. Celta Vigo; Atlético Madrid vs Valencia

SUNDAY: Granada v. Osasuna; Real Madrid versus Elche; Rayo Vallecano against Athletic Bilbao; Real Sociedad v Getafe; Alaves c. Barcelona.

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