Hallelujah! Premier League football returns after a typically underwhelming international break.
The weekend could not start with more of a ferocious bang if it tried, as two giants lock horns in the 12:30 kick-off at the Etihad, with Manchester City welcoming Liverpool in a game which should be packed full of drama.
The tie doesn’t hold quite as much jeopardy as it has in recent seasons, with Liverpool’s stark inconsistency meaning that their sole aim for the league campaign is now to finish in the top-four rather than run City to the wire in an enthralling two-horse title race.
Pep Guardiola’s still make up one side of such a tussle but for once they find themselves as the B side in this particular argument, with Arsenal currently eight points ahead of them at the summit as we enter the season’s final stretch.
A win here for City will put the pressure back on Mikel Arteta’s side, who kick off a matter of hours later in north London when they welcome Leeds to the Emirates in another match which brings with it plenty of scope for excitement. A defeat, you could argue, might just hand the Gunners the title should they claim all three points against Javi Gracia’s men.
City and Liverpool’s hotly-anticipated battle will understandably dominate the viewing figures but this weekend’s set of results in England’s top division will have much more of a bearing for teams battling it out at the bottom.
Roy Hodgson takes charge of his first game back as Crystal Palace manager following the dismissal of Patrick Vieira before the international break and could not be faced with more of a six-pointer if he tried, as fellow strugglers Leicester visit Selhurst Park.
Palace sit just below mid-table in 12th but such is the nature of the league this season there are only three points distancing them from the bottom three, so a win here is essential to their chances of remaining in the top tier.
The same can be said for Leicester, who are hovering precariously above the danger zone in 17th place with only a solitary point separating them from the relegation spaces.
A win for either side will drastically bolster their chances of avoiding a dog fight during the business end of the campaign, though the defeated party – should there be one – will find themselves in further peril and little time to turn things around.
16th-placed Nottingham Forest host 13th-placed Wolves is another huge six-pointer towards the foot of the table and Julien Lopetegui will be extremely hopeful that his team can avoid a repeat of the dreadful performance they put on against Leeds prior to the break, where his team lost 4-2 at Molineux to a relegation rival and had a man sent off.
Forest’s fortunes were looking up after a dismal start but they have since slipped back to familiar patterns and have won just one of their last seven league fixtures, losing their previous two games – results which has seen Steve Cooper’s side drop to 16th in the league and remain firmly in the battle to avoid the drop.
A victory against Wolves would provide them with some much needed breathing space and as the league is so tight, could see them rise to as high as 12th should results elsewhere work in their favour.
The action doesn’t stop there, though, as on Sunday there is a huge clash of high significance as West Ham host bottom club Southampton. Just a point separates the pair in the bottom three, with the 18th-placed Hammers in danger of slipping further down the table should they fail to win this encounter against the division’s worst side.
The Saints have been in slightly better form since the departure of Nathan Jones, picking up a huge win over Chelsea in February before positive draws away at Manchester United and, most recently, at home to Tottenham – a game they found themselves 3-1 down in after 74 minutes but ended up pulling it back to 3-3.
The result cost Antonio Conte his job after a bizarre, hard-hitting rant aimed at the north London club’s players and board was dished out in the immediate aftermath, though it did see Southampton’s chances of survival given renewed hope and the Hampshire side are now only two points from safety with 10 games remaining – Sunday’s game could not be more imperative to their chances of swerving the Championship, for one more season at least.
The Premier League – it’s good to have you back.
Fixtures in full:
SATURDAY 1ST APRIL
Manchester City 12:30 Liverpool
Arsenal 15:00 Leeds United
AFC Bournemouth 15:00 Fulham
Brighton & Hove Albion 15:00 Brentford
Crystal Palace 15:00 Leicester City
Nottingham Forest 15:00 Wolverhampton Wanderers
Chelsea 17:30 Aston Villa
SUNDAY 2ND APRIL
West Ham United 14:00 Southampton
Newcastle United 16:30 Manchester United
MONDAY 3RD APRIL
Everton 20:00 Tottenham Hotspur