Manchester City begin their five-date Champions 2018 Tour with a gala performance against Swansea City, while Chelsea beat Southampton to book their own big day out, against Manchester United, in the FA Cup final.
Boasting five of the top 11 most bought players for Gameweek 35, City were always likely to decide the fate of many Fantasy Premier League (FPL) managers and, in particular, the success of the Free Hit chip. And so it proved.
Three of that aforementioned quintet were among the goals, with Raheem Sterling the star turn.
Only Gabriel Jesus (375,000+) was bought by more managers than the 327,000 who swooped for Sterling.
Both made telling contributions, with the England international’s goal and assist taking him to a second straight double-digit haul.
Captained by 133,000+ (2.2%), Sterling has now returned in each of his last five Gameweeks (three goals, four assists).
Some 272,000+ (4.6%) opted to hand the armband to Jesus instead, persuaded in part by the season-ending injury to Sergio Aguero that should keep the Brazilian in the starting XI from here on in.
Indeed, of the 154,759 Free Hit chips played in Gameweek 35, a lofty 70.4% – or 109,085 in total – acquired the City striker.
Although he matched Sterling’s goal and assist, the latter contribution came via a missed penalty saved by the overworked Lukasz Fabianski, with Bernardo Silva tucking away the rebound.
Returning seven points by the end of proceedings, the Brazilian now has three goals and a trio of assists in four league starts since returning from injury.
City’s schedule (whu HUD BHA sot) could barley look more conducive to investment, particularly for Double Gameweek 37, and Jesus was a perfect fit for our frontlines, coming in considerably cheaper, at 10.2, than the likes of Harry Kane (12.8) and Romelu Lukaku (11.5).
But Sterling (8.9) – now up to six double-figure home hauls – is arguably a higher priority target, and no-one would be surprised if Guardiola even decided to start him up front at some point during the final four matches.
The best, and the rest, of the rest
Then again, doubts over pitch-time are likely to occur across the entire team now.
Two of the aforementioned top 11 players for transfers in – Nicolas Otamendi (26.9%) and Leroy Sane (12.2%) – along with Kyle Walker (13.3%) played no part at all yesterday.
That was a bitter blow for those holding one of the defensive duo – a deeply unfortunate 136,681 owned both – as City kept their first clean sheet in five matches across all competitions.
Both Otamendi and Walker have started just one league fixture in the last three Gameweeks, which hardly bodes well ahead of their Double Gameweek 37.
And the 84,000+ who had purchased the German winger saw their man rested after six successive starts from which he’d produced two goals and as many assists.
While yesterday’s rest strengthens the chances of all three returning to the teamsheet at West Ham next weekend, it would be no real surprise if no player started all four remaining matches this season.
David Silva marked his seventh straight start with a goal – his first at home since Gameweek 15 – and two bonus points for his third double-digit return of a fantastically productive run.
The 87,000+ who brought him in, and the 735,000 who own him overall, will now be hoping that Guardiola keeps faith in his compatriot as he did at the start of the season when the midfielder started the first 13 Gameweeks.
Kevin De Bruyne has been even busier this campaign, starting all but one match in the league.
Bought by 52,000 and captained by 160,000+ (2.7%) for Gameweek 35, he’s found in 22.3% of squads and rewarded them all with only his second goal in nine starts.
In fact, he’s scored just twice in 16 Gameweek appearances, but has nine assists from that run and a league-leading 17 this campaign.
The Belgian is now just three short of Arsenal legend Thierry Henry’s 20 assists in a season – one of a number of records the City team could break, should they be so inclined.
The rest, however, are all team-based milestones, and Guardiola has many resources at his disposal to secure them without the need to favour a key player or two.
De Bruyne’s last four run-outs have involved one appearance from the bench and three starts when he’s been subbed off before the end.
He lasted 66 minutes yesterday – a possible indication that his coach wishes to preserve him for consistent late-season action.
Or that might just be wishful thinking. We can think on it, but the only one with the definitive answer remains Pep Guardiola.
Throw in a squad full of players heading to the World Cup, and even Yaya Toure might get a league start over the next three weeks.
The Ivorian got 25 minutes off the bench yesterday, time enough to provide an assist, while fellow subs Phil Foden and the fit-again Benjamin Mendy will also be pushing for starts before the campaign comes to a close.
Busy times for the Blues
On the face of it, Chelsea coach Antonio Conte’s comments following his side’s 2-0 FA Cup semi-final win over Southampton should have sparked pleasure in us rotation-phobic Fantasy managers.
“We are not in the position to prioritise, if we want to continue to have hope of getting into the Champions League we have to take three points in these four games. Now we must be focused on the league.”
Those four matches are: Swansea City away; Liverpool and Huddersfield both at home in Double Gameweek 37 and then a final-day trip to Newcastle.
But the Blues remain five points off Spurs in the race for the final Champions League spot and there’s a perfectly reasonable scenario in which Mauricio Pochettino’s men win their next two fixtures (home to Watford, away at West Brom) and Chelsea fail to beat Liverpool, which will consign them to fifth place with two matches still to play.
Factor in the FA Cup final with Man United that comes six days after the end of the league campaign, and rotation would surely result.
That’s all ifs and buts for now, with the current conundrum for Fantasy managers keen to exploit the Blues’ Double Gameweek involving what exactly is Conte’s first-choice team these days.
Marcos Alonso served the second instalment of his three-match ban, but that was the only change forced upon the coach.
The rest, and specifically Olivier Giroud’s start at the expense of Alvaro Morata up front, were entirely of his own making.
The Frenchman (1.6%) did his cause no harm at all by scoring the opening goal yesterday when he managed to weave his way past most of the Southampton defence before poking home.
The strike was set up by the excellent Eden Hazard, who seemed to find playing close to Giroud very much to his taste.
Priced at just 8.2, the Giroud could prove to be a major differential should Conte keep faith in him for the run-in.
But Morata (7.8%) had time for his own take on the matter when he replaced Giroud after 80 minutes and almost immediately scored, nodding home the ever-reliable César Azpilicueta’s cross.
The case for the defence
If Conte’s forward options remain decidedly fluid, the defensive make-up of his team is not exactly settled either.
Andreas Christensen remained on the bench for the second straight match in all competitions – he’s also started just one of the last three Gameweeks – as the coach partnered Azpilicueta with Antonio Rudiger and Gary Cahill at the back.
The German has now played two straight matches, Cahill the last four, although the make-up of Conte’s back three has not stayed the same over the last three Gameweek.
For security of starts, Azpilicueta remains the main man, to be joined by Alonso once he’s available again for Double Gameweek 37.
The only problem is that both are premium-priced players in a defence without a clean sheet in seven Gameweeks. As a result, over 22,000 Alonso owners have already had enough – he’s second only to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for sales since the weekend deadline passed.
Conte’s Midfield minefield
Things aren’t much clearer further up the pitch.
Hazard was superb at Wembley, but remains mercurial in the league, where he’s managed just one goal from the last six Gameweeks.
That’s a meagre return for his 10.5 outlay, which is why Willian (7.1) has proved to be far more popular.
He’s currently owned by 14.8% to Hazard’s 6.1%, but the Brazilian blanked yesterday and hinted at issues with his coach when Conte swapped him for Tiemoue Bakayoko after 64 minutes of the semi-final.
The move was tactical, Saints boss Mark Hughes bringing on both Dusan Tadic and Nathan Redmond in a bid to claw back the then one-goal deficit, but Willian walked straight down the tunnel, shaking his head at the coach’s decision.
The midfielder’s form has been on the wane in recent weeks – he had just one assist from the three starts prior to his benching for the second match of Double Gameweek 34 – and his ownership will be hoping the air is cleared between him and Conte ahead of next Saturday’s trip to Swansea City.
Should that not be the case, Pedro could be in line for a second straight league start, after warming the bench in the previous four.
No rest for the Saints
Southampton now have four matches to pull off an unlikely escape from relegation.
They were helped by league results elsewhere over the weekend, and their schedule (BOU eve swa MCI) offers a glimmer of hope.
Double Gameweek 37 just about keeps their assets on the Fantasy radar, although the pickings are slim indeed.
Hughes opted to start Shane Long and Charlie Austin in a 3-5-2 up front against Chelsea, which will cheer the 1.1% of managers with the latter in their sides, but the Saints’ toothless attack – they’ve managed just four goals in the last six league matches – does not scream investment.
And things are equally parlous at the back.
The 0-0 draw secured at Leicester City last time out was their first clean sheet in five fixtures, but it’s fair to say that the Foxes were already mentally packing for the beach and/or the World Cup.
Jan Bednarek (4.1) started his third straight match at centre-half to continue his claims as a budget enabler, but Jack Stephens (4.5) has now served his three-match ban and looks very likely to walk straight back into the team for the run-in.