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Tight EPL race

The way things stand, we will definitely have a thrilling climax to the season

In Summary

•Rashford going for the jackpot.

•Brighton manager Chris Hughton thinks he has the answers to keep Brighton & Hove Albion in the top flight.

Manchester United's Marcus Rashford in action with Arsenal's Sokratis Papastathopoulos
Manchester United's Marcus Rashford in action with Arsenal's Sokratis Papastathopoulos
Image: REUTERS

As the season’s end is getting ever closer the battle for the Premier League title between Liverpool and Manchester City is incredibly close. But so is the fight for third and fourth places with five points separating Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester United. I can’t think of a more dramatic and exciting end to a season for many years. There is so much to look forward to. This Sunday, Liverpool host Chelsea and coming up we have Man City v Tottenham, the two Manchester clubs going head to head at Old Trafford on the 24th April, then it is Man United vs Chelsea. Every club is desperate to make the top four and the riches the Champion’s League will bring. The only manager who will be excused by his club if he doesn’t make it is Ole Gunner Solskjaer who has a “work in progress” challenge at United. The other clubs are desperate to qualify and none more so than north London rivals Arsenal and Tottenham. What a climax to a brilliant season!

Rashford going for the jackpot

When Manchester United poorly judged that Alexis Sanchez was worth a staggering £500,000-a-week, It upset the whole salary structure at the club. Now it is the turn of Marcus Rashford to cash in and he has demanded Wayne Rooney’s old salary of £300,000-a-week. Rashford earns £80k-a-week at the moment but his value has soared over the past two seasons with excellent United and England performances. Rashford sees his future with the Reds and the new deal is granted, he will earn him more than £15m-a-year and a staggering £78m up to the end of the contract in 2024. The young striker is out of contract at the end of next season which has alerted leading European clubs. However, United have triggered his one-year automatic contract extension. Two United players wanted by Real Madrid have been on the end of a charm offensive by Real manager Zinedine Zidane. Manchester United have told their two stars Paul Pogba and David De Gea that they are not for sale and cannot leave and urged them not to talk to Real Madrid and especially with Zidane. Pogba is talking about his contract being increased to £460,000-a-week and his agent is understood to have already engaged in talks with United. De Gea wants £350,000-a-week to stay and his contract is up in the summer of 2020 when he could leave for free. One player who is definitely leaving United is Ander Herrera as I told you recently. PSG have agreed to sign the 29-year-old who won United’s Player of the Year in 2017 but as he is about to reach the age of 30, United will not offer him the long contract he desires.

Update on Kane’s ankle injury

There was genuine concern and worry when Fabian Delph stepped on Harry Kane’s ankle during their Champion’s League match this week. Spurs’ striker Kane left the field and went straight to the dressing room being helped by two assistant trainers. He left two hours later helped by crutches and protected by a heavy medical boot. Mauricio Pochettino needs Kane for his final few games and he was visibly concerned when the striker went down. With 20 minutes to go, Pochettino left the field to check on Harry. The injured ankle was the same one which kept the Spur’s star on the injury list for seven games after being injured in a tackle by Phil Jones at Manchester United. The ankle is very swollen and Harry cannot put any weight on it. I talked with Spurs at breakfast time on Thursday morning. They are still assessing the damage. However,  according to their medical experts, it looks like Harry could miss at least four matches and possibly all those that remain this season.

No deal for Rafa yet

When talking to Newcastle last month I thought the future of manager Rafa Benitez was at last sorted out and he was staying. Now, I am told, negotiations have again gone backwards and Rafa said an agreement was “not close”. His contract is up on May 24th and the fans are desperate for him to stay and owner Mike Ashley, who still wants to sell the club, knows that with Rafa at the helm his shares in Newcastle are worth a lot more. Rafa has been contacted by at least six European clubs and he could still walk away although that is not his main wish.

Two born leaders at Liverpool

The importance of veteran warhorses James Milner and Jordan Henderson was very apparent when they came on as substitutes because of Liverpool’s lacklustre display against Southampton last weekend. Southampton were having a lot of success and constantly attacking the Liverpool goal. In midfield, Naby Keita was regularly losing the ball and allowing opposing players to run off him and Southampton were beginning to control the centre of the park. Enter Milner and Henderson who were aggressive and verbal with their teammates, bossing them into action. Both Milner and Henderson will be the first to tell you they are not the most gifted players in the team but they know how to lead both on and off the field. Incidentally, Milner is a very funny guy and is constantly cracking jokes and making his team laugh in the dressing room. Milner and Hendo brought Liverpool control, calm, organisation and immediately started most of Liverpool’s attacks from midfield. Manager Jurgen Klopp is brilliant at recognising problems early on and taking action. Virgil Van Dijk is a leader and so too is Dejan Lovren but Milner and Henderson are the two most senior players and they are superb at taking responsibility. I can see either Milner or Henderson starting more regularly as Liverpool dare not slip up during the final title run in.

Tough run in for Brighton

Brighton manager Chris Hughton thinks he has the answers to keep Brighton & Hove Albion in the top flight. Lurking dangerously close to the bottom three Hughton believes his formation of Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy at the back with Dale Stephens and Davy Propper in deep midfield, is the perfect set up to frustrate opponents and lead to good counter-attacking the football. “We can do it,” said Hughton, “and our position is not reflective of how talented this team is.” Brighton have a nightmare run-in to the end of the season and face Wolves, Tottenham and Arsenal away and Man City at home. They might just get points at home against Bournemouth this weekend and Newcastle but avoiding relegation is going to take a lot of fight and spirit but I hope they can do it.

Zouma has yet to decide his future

When I tried to understand the thinking of Kurt Zouma regarding his future, Chelsea’s on-loan to Everton defender, he was reluctant to make any formal statement. Instead, the 24-year-old Frenchman simply said, “I don’t know yet. We have five more games to play and then I will talk with the manager here at Everton and with Maurizio Sarri, my manager at Chelsea”. He also said, “It is true I am happy here and I came to prove myself and I think I have done that.” Zouma has bonded well with England defender Michael Keane and has made 24 starts for Everton, something he could never have achieved at Chelsea given their star-studded defenders. 

Van Dijk in award-winning form

It is strange to think back to only 2014 when critics of Liverpool No4 Virgil Van Dijk questioned not only his place in the Scottish Celtic team where he played but whether he was good enough to play anywhere in the Premier League. Critics claimed he was too laid back, lacked concentration and ability. Like another Celtic star, the brilliant Henrik Larsson, he made the move to the Premier League and set the world alight with his brilliance. Now he is rated the best in the Premier League and the best since United’s Nemanja Vidic at his prime for Manchester United. Both Van Dijk and City’s Raheem Sterling are the front runners to win the Professional Footballer’s Award for the 2018/19 season.

Edin Dzeko on the move

I received a phone call from Everton to tell me they have an interest in Roma’s ex-Manchester City striker Edin Dzeko. Despite the Bosnian being 33-year-old, the Serie ‘A’ giants will still demand about £25m for the striker. He has scored 17 goals so far this season. That figure deterred Chelsea when they made enquiries. I understand that Dzeko would welcome a return to the Premier League and West Ham United are also monitoring the situation. Italy’s Inter Milan are rumoured to be interested and are also considering bidding for Juventus attacker Paulo Dybala and they would refresh their attacking options by putting Dybala and Dzeko together.

How about two penalty spots?

Talking with some other journalists at the weekend, one of them came up with an interesting idea. There have been 92 penalties in the Premier League this season with 72 resulting in goals. However, there is often a much easier chance of scoring with the penalty than from the position where the player was fouled? Therefore, said one of my colleagues, is there a case to be made for two penalty spots. The current penalty spot is 12 yards from the goal so how about a second penalty spot 18 yards from the goal for fouls committed in a situation where the striker is much less likely to have scored. Which penalty spot would be the referee’s decision and also the Video Assistant Referee (VAR). An interesting point to talk about.