The season is reaching its crescendo. We have a fantastic title battle, a host of teams fighting for European places and others doing all they can to avoid the nightmare of actually winning some matches in the Championship next season.
But for the teams in mid-table, how can they retain their motivation after the last international break? We look at why it isn’t time to get the flip-flops out just yet…
Aston Villa: Anyone who witnessed Steven Gerrard taking his anger out on Des Kelly at the weekend will have got the memo that he will not let Aston Villa’s season drift to its conclusion. These final matches will be vital for Gerrard to establish a clear strategy so they have a settled system going into next season. There have been flashes of brilliance since he joined, but like his fellow mid-table colleagues, the challenge has been finding any kind of consistency. Consistency of selection and choosing his favoured number 10 may be a start.
For the players, there can be no (ahem) slips in standards. Villa have already been linked with a £60m bid for Kalvin Phillips and will spend heavily again this summer to try and avoid this list next season. Gerrard has a plethora of attacking options and it is time for Emi Buendia, Leon Bailey and Danny Ings to ensure they aren’t used in the same breath as Gareth Bale’s ‘replacements’ at Spurs.
I would probably avoid playing the injury card too…
Leicester City: Brendan Rodgers could be forgiven for wanting this season to end. They may not have been given the same headline space, but Leicester are the 2021/22 version of 2020/21 Liverpool. Their injury record has been absolutely horrendous. It seems that every time they get a key player fit (Wesley Fofana), another suffers a bad injury (Wilfred Ndidi).
An unlikely potential season saver has come along in the form of the Europa Conference League. Rodgers may not know much about it, but it offers a route into Europe next season and an opportunity to put yet more silverware in their bulging trophy cabinet. If they can get enough of their favoured starting XI on the pitch against PSV and then Bodo/Glimt (if Jose somehow gets Roma past them, the next Paddy Power advert writes itself), another trophy is in sight.
Southampton: The Saints have a real challenge to avoid their minds wandering to the beach. After looking unbeatable in February, they have looked anything but in March and the dream of a day out at Wembley is now over after a cruel defeat to Man City.
Southampton fans won’t thank me for this, but motivation may come from players putting themselves in the shop window before the summer. They have a number of players that would comfortably get into the teams of clubs with significantly larger budgets than Southampton. Tino Livramento, Kyle Walker-Peters, Mohammed Salisu, James Ward-Prowse and (on-loan) Armando Broja will all have admirers and a strong run of form at this stage of the season will increase the chances of big bids in the summer.
If any of those players do leave, there are not many better clubs than Southampton at finding replacements.
Crystal Palace: Where Southampton failed in reaching Wembley, Palace succeeded. Playing Everton rather than Man City was probably handy. Chelsea will be the neutrals’ favourites in the cup semi-final after defying the sporting integrity imbalance at Middlesbrough, but Palace will see it as a real opportunity to get to a final. Any team with Wilfried Zaha, Michael Olise and Eberechi Eze will always have a chance in a one-off match.
Before that, it is essential that Palace do not let their recent standards drop. The best preparation for the Chelsea match is good performances in the league and Vieira must ensure that the players stay motivated as momentum will be key.
Brighton: Sadly, Palace’s incredibly fierce rivals don’t have a milestone occasion to look forward to. Arguably, Brighton needed to read this six matches ago as they have seemingly already put their towels on the sun loungers.
It is imperative that Brighton awaken from their slumber and have a positive end to the season. The perception of their season is very much hanging by a thread; they could end up as brilliantly run over-achievers or, if their current form continues, relative under-achievers considering the number of excellent players in their squad. Even more importantly, they need to build some momentum going into next season. Football being football, a bad end to this season and similar start to next and the merits of Potterball will be questioned all over again.
Newcastle United: The Newcastle players are essentially on trial for the rest of this season. It has only been mentioned in brief dispatches so you have may have missed the news, but a plucky investment group have purchased the club and will be looking to massively improve the standard of the playing squad going into next season. It is up to the current players to prove that they are good enough to play for a club that will become one of the Premier League’s big guns.
In reality, we could probably decide who will be cut now but Joelinton is an example of a player who has already changed the perceptions of everybody but his Newcastle team-mates in the last few months. He is even keeping Darryl Strawberry on the bench. Could Ciaran Clark pull off a similar renaissance? (No, because he was left out of the Premier League squad – Ed).
Steve Sanders – follow him on Twitter
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