Fulham’s expensively assembled cast of on-loan signings take centre stage when Scott Parker’s side lock horns with Nuno Espirito Santo’s Wolves Friday night in the opening fixture of week 31 of the Premier League. The Cottagers were under the cosh during the opening half of the season after winning just two of their first sixteen Premier League games. Josh Maja’s arrival in January on loan from Bordeaux sparked a mini revival in which the West London club were no longer losing games. But too many draws in games in which they had the beating of their opponents has left them staring down the relegation barrel.
With Sheffield United cut off adrift and West Brom needing to win more games than they’ve done all season to beat the drop, the battle for survival is pitting Fulham against Steve Bruce’s Newcastle United and Graham Potter’s Brighton Hove. The Cottagers go into the match three points from safety having played a game more. The club’s other loanees – Ola Aina, Joachim Andersen, Mario Lemina, Alphonse Areola, Ruben Loftus Cheek and Ademola Lookman will therefore have to show a lot more street wisdom if they are to avoid losing vital points in games in which they had a strong foothold as they did last Saturday in collapsing to a 1-3 loss to Aston Villa.
Mikel Arteta’s policy of loaning out players in order to maintain a lean and mean squad will meanwhile be extended to the limit when Arsenal travel face relegation bound Sheffield United on Sunday. Injuries to Kieran Tierney, Granit Xhaka and David Luis have left the Gunners short of defensive cover, leading to questions over the wisdom of simultaneously loaning out Saed Kolasinac, Konstantinos Mavropenos, Willy Saliba and Ainsley Maitland Niles in a season in which Skhordan Mustafi and Sokratis were hawked off for paltry fees.
Five victories in their last 13 matches in all competitions points to patchy form which has left the Gunners in tenth place on the Premier League table seven points off qualification for Europe. And though Arteta’s transfer record has been boosted by stellar performances of Real Madrid loanee Martin Odegaard, Dani Ceballos’ failure to distinguish himself has led many to wonder if Matteo Guendouzi wasn’t unfairly shunted out of the squad to Hertha Berlin. Unless their domestic form improves rapidly, It is increasingly appears that Arsenal might have to win the Europa League to play on the continent next season.
West Brom have improved markedly since January when Maitland Niles was joined at the Hawthorns by Celta Vigo midfielder Okay Yokuslu and Senegal power forward Mbaye Diagne. The trio of loanees will be hoping to emulate the mercurial form exhibited by Baggies talisman Mateus Perreira, who bludgeoned giants Chelsea in a memorable 5-2 victory last Saturday. The game at the Hawthorns promises goals as Ralph Hassenhutl’s Southampton are full of attacking verve.
At the opposite end of the table, runaway leaders Manchester City will have one eye on Wednesday’s Champions League fixture away to Borussia Dortmund when they host Leeds United in Saturday’s early kick off. City have been imperious in building a double digit lead over Manchester United but Marcelo Bielsa’s visitors should provide the perfect test for Pep Guardiola’s big hitters as they prepare for a repeat of the full pitch pressing Dortmund displayed in a 2-1 loss on Tuesday. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Red Devils defend second position away to former manager Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday.
Elsewhere on Sunday, the division’s standout loanee, England livewire Jesse Lingard ‘Lingardinho’ will be the center of attention when David Moyes’ fourth placed West Ham lock horns with Brendan Rodgers’s Leicester City. Lingard has transformed the Hammers with a string of eye catching displays, not least of which was on Monday when he danced his way around five befuddled Wolves defenders on his way to helping West Ham to a 3-2 victory that lifted the Londoners into a Champions League position. It will be hard to look past Lingard in the EPL player of the month awards.
Fulham v Wolves
Manchester City v Leeds Utd,
Liverpool v Aston Villa,
Crystal Palace v Chelsea