My predictions for this weekend's matches in the Premier League and Championship.
Aston Villa vs. Sunderland
|Good substitutions from Lambert|
Thanks to a second half comeback, Aston Villa gained a point at local rivals West Brom on Monday night. A triple substitution from Lambert with half an hour remaining made the difference, as Weimann, Agbonlahor and Delph injected pace to Villa’s play, and the equalizer from Ashley Westwood was top class. The result is unlikely to change much in the context of their season though, because Villa are looking secure in midtable. The word ‘secure’ certainly cannot be used to describe Sunderland. The Black Cats are bottom of the table after a 2-0 defeat to Stoke despite a reasonable performance, and thankfully for them Wes Brown’s ban has been rescinded, because he should not have been sent off. They showed some creativity, but a big problem is the confidence of lone striker Steven Fletcher. Fletcher picked up an injury in October and has not looked particularly decisive in front of goal this season. There might only be a three point gap between Gus Poyet’s side and safety, but losing to one of your relegation rivals will be tough to bounce back from. Sunderland have not scored on their travels since August, so this might be a narrow home win. 1-0.
Cardiff vs. Arsenal
|Arsenal need their leaders|
Cardiff always provide the top teams with a real examination when they come over the border. Man United, Man City, Everton and very nearly Tottenham have come away from Cardiff without the three points they were expecting. In each of those games their opponents had more possession, but Cardiff made themselves difficult to break down, and posed a very big threat in set piece situations. A few things then, for Arsene Wenger to worry about. He has seen his side beat high-flying Southampton last time out, but he win came from a comedic error by their keeper and a penalty for shirt-tugging, neither of which were exactly vintage goals. This is a game that Arsenal need to be fully-focused for, and leaders such as Per Mertesacker and Mathieu Flamini have a big responsibility to make sure concentration does not drop, particularly for the set plays. Arsenal have kept four clean sheets from their last five matches, which suggests they are getting strong defensively. With Arsenal’s passing ability they should control this match, it is just a question of whether they can break Cardiff, a tenacious team, down and stay alert for their set plays. 0-1.
Everton vs. Stoke
|Stoke in transition|
A match between two teams changing their approach a little bit this season, with new managers in charge. Over the past few years, Everton and Stoke built their teams on rigid, solid foundations under Moyes and Pulis respectively. This summer, they brought in more adventurous, attack-minded managers in Martinez and Hughes, and both clubs can be satisfied with the transition thus far. Everton are only one point away from the Champions League spots, while Stoke have lost just one of their last five games, following an important win over Sunderland last week. However, after a late equalizer from Liverpool last week, Everton are now on a run of three consecutive draws. They need to get a win before trips to Man United and Arsenal in the next few days, and will have to cope without the injured Leighton Baines, who is an integral part of their attacking play down the left hand side. Still, they should beat Stoke, who were a little fortuitous in their win over Sunderland last week. 2-0.
Norwich vs. Crystal Palace
|"Damn, what have I done?"|
This could prove to be a very big weekend for the battle to avoid the drop, with four of the bottom five teams playing against each other. This is Tony Pulis’s first match in charge of Crystal Palace, and he was thrown a lifeline by caretaker Keith Millen, who guided them to a scrappy win at Hull last time out. There are some important games coming up now for the Eagles, after this they have home clashes against West Ham and Cardiff in the next week, but the squad they have is always going to struggle to stay up. Norwich will be without winger Robert Snodgrass, who has been one of their better players this season, but the way the team defended at Newcastle will be more of a concern for Chris Hughton. They had won their last match and, playing away from home, the team would be expected to keep it tight at the beginning. Instead, they gave away a cheap goal from a corner and fell 2-0 down by half-time. Only Sunderland have conceded more goals than the Canaries, so they must improve at the back. With it being an unknown how Pulis’s arrival will impact Palace’s results in the short-term, a draw is the safe bet. 1-1.
West Ham vs. Fulham
|Allardyce under pressure|
A goalless draw is the outcome which jumps off the page here. These are two of the oldest squads in the Premier League, with both managers under pressure, and both clubs are fearing relegation. West Ham have only scored three goals in their last five home games, having failed to net in their last two, and groups of Hammers fans are starting to turn on manager Sam Allardyce. Likewise, the pressure is growing on Martin Jol at Fulham. The Cottagers have lost their last five matches in all competitions, so morale will not be high and it is difficult to see them having the energy and confidence to attack West Ham. Both teams often sit dip and play in their own half, and West Ham now tend to play without a recognized striker, while Fulham’s front line has very little work rate. It all makes for a dreary atmosphere, and a game which will lack energy and spark. 0-0.
Newcastle vs. West Brom
|Remy continues to flourish|
Toon fans who were campaigning against the lack of summer spending, and Alan Pardew a few weeks ago, have been a bit quiet lately. It is very much the nature of football, that short-term results on the pitch change everything with regard to fans’ attitude to the people in charge of their club and, well, Newcastle have won their last three matches. Loic Remy continued his impressive scoring record with an eighth goal of the season against Norwich, which was a third consecutive game he has found the net, making him now the Premier League’s fourth top scorer. West Brom could not hold onto a two goal lead over Aston Villa on Monday, stumbling to a 2-2 draw, which keeps them in the bottom half of the table. Shane Long went from not having netted this season, to being West Brom’s top league goalscorer in the space of two games. The Irishman has struggled with a knee injury so far this season, but he is a very strong, hardworking forward who can be useful to West Brom’s attacking play. Newcastle could go fourth with a win – their season is looking up. 2-1.
Tottenham vs. Man Utd
|Is AVB the man for Spurs?|
Robbie Savage made some comments about Tottenham in his weekly video. I agreed with him that Villas-Boas has been too negative, playing two defensive-minded midfielders in home games against weaker teams, while Lennon and Townsend have not put enough crosses in for Soldado. However, he also ‘ruled out’ Tottenham for a Champions League place, which is premature. They are only two points off fourth, and have £105 million worth of new talent in their team. The players they have brought in will need to take time to settle, and once Villas-Boas gets his tactics right, there is no reason why Spurs cannot start to put wins together. However, on Sunday they face a Manchester United side who beat Bayer Leverkusen 5-0 on their own turf on Wednesday. That said, the result had more to do with Leverkusen’s performance than United’s, because the German’s were awful at the back. A repeat of last season’s 1-1 draw is an outcome which neither side would be too happy with, because both teams will be expecting to finish higher than where they are at the moment. 1-1.
Hull vs. Liverpool
|Agger back for Liverpool|
Hull have had back-to-back defeats, in disappointing circumstances. They were completely outplayed by Southampton a few weeks ago, and fell down to the 10-men of Crystal Palace last time out. They have only scored two goals in their last four games, which suggests that Steve Bruce may need to invest in a striker in January, for their effort to stay away from the relegation dogfight. Liverpool have kept just the one clean sheet since their run of 1-0 wins at the start of the season, and they conceded three goals at Everton last time out. They need to become more solid at the back if they want to stay in the top four, although the recent return of Daniel Agger from injury should see them improve defensively. Luis Suarez has been sensational since he came back into the team. He is just one goal behind the league’s top scorer, despite having played just seven matches, and you would not bet against him engineering a Liverpool win here. 0-2.
Chelsea vs. Southampton
|Progress from Oscar|
Chelsea got a comfortable 3-0 win at West Ham last week, thanks to a very strong performance from Oscar. The Brazilian was slightly inconsistent last season, but having had a year to settle in England, he looks a very big threat going forward for Chelsea. Despite a reasonable performance at Arsenal, Southampton came away empty handed, largely because of a blunder from Artur Boruc in the first half. It is possible that Southampton will start to slip down the table in the run up to Christmas, and as well as they have done so far, they are unlikely to keep pace with the top six. They might just be due a heavy defeat, and the high pressing game the Saints operate against the top teams will not necessarily work against Chelsea, who can move the ball very quickly in the attacking areas. Chelsea will have had five days to correct a poor performance in Basel on Tuesday, and could record a big win, to damage Southampton’s strong defensive record thus far. 3-0.
Man City vs. Swansea
|Etihad is City's safe haven|
People have been pinpointing time on the ball as a reason Man City’s form has been so different when at home, to when playing away, but I am not so sure this is accurate. Surprisingly, they have only had an average of 53.5% possession at home in the Premier League, compared to 60% away. Perhaps concentration at the back has been a problem, because three of their four away defeats came from conceding goals in the last fifteen minutes. Thankfully for City fans, this is a home game, and they have won every single match at the Etihad so far. Swansea got a win at Fulham last week, thanks to a top quality late goal from Jonjo Shelvey. However, the concern for them is that top scorer Wilfried Bony could be out for weeks after picking up a hamstring injury against Valencia. This game should not be a problem for Man City. 2-0.
Nottm Forest vs. Reading
|Cohen out for Forest|
Something of an injury crisis has hit the City Ground, with potentially five important players missing on Friday night, captain Chris Cohen having picked up a knee injury in the draw against Burnley. Nottingham Forest had a lot of possession in that match and perhaps deserved more than a point, but with the injuries mounting, these next few matches will provide a big test of squad depth. Reading are in poor form, having won just one of their last seven matches, and worryingly they only had one shot on target against Blackburn last week. High earner Pavel Pogrebnyak is an experienced international - he needs to start firing for the Royals. 1-1.
Bournemouth vs. Brighton
|Brighton improving under Garcia|
The clash of the south-coast clubs. After an excellent start to the season, Bournemouth are beginning to slip down the table, having taken just one point from their previous four matches. The Cherries are now down to sixteenth and struggling to find their vitality and buoyancy, which made them a force in the early weeks of the campaign. It has been a case of very much the opposite for Brighton. After a dreadful start, results gradually picked up under Oscar Garcia, and now they have won three consecutive matches. The way the Seagulls are playing at the moment, this could be a fourth. 0-2.
Barnsley vs. Birmingham
|Blues extend Lingard loan|
This is a game in which both teams will be inclined to take an attacking approach. For a home game against a side slightly above the relegation zone, Barnsley will feel they need to win this. Likewise, Birmingham will fancy their chances against the worst defence in the Championship. However, Barnsley’s lowly position in the table does not reflect that they have only been beaten once at home since the opening day. Birmingham have extended the loan of Jesse Lingard from Man Utd until New Year, which is good news, because he adds pace and guile to the Blues front line. This has potential to be a high-scoring contest. 2-2.
Blackburn vs. Leeds
|Leeds have power in midfield|
Blackburn have failed to score in their last two matches, and despite having Jordan Rhodes in the team, their season seems to be falling flat. The worry for Rovers is that they do not seem to have too much of a physical presence in midfield. The likes of Lowe and Williamson might well get dominated by Leed’s Austin and Murphy, who are very tall, powerful players. And, if Blackburn are struggling for goals at the moment, Leeds certainly aren’t. They have scored fourteen times in their last five matches, winning four of them, with Ross McCormack getting most of the goals. Leeds are looking in great shape at the moment, but whether they get a play-off place depends on whether they can keep up their form for long spells. 1-2.
Blackpool vs. Sheff Wed
|Ince returns from stadium ban|
Last week, Blackpool got what turned out to be a decent point at Birmingham. None of the three teams below them had won and the Tangerines now have two games, against Wednesday and Yeovil, from which maximum points must be the objective. They also recall manager Paul Ince for the first time since his five match stadium ban, for violent conduct. People connected with Blackpool have said that the ban was harsh and that Ince only needs to learn to control his passion, but I’m having none of it. To shove, and reportedly threaten to ‘knock out’ a fourth official is disgraceful behaviour for anyone involved in football, let alone a manager. Every Monday morning I expect to find out that Dave Jones has left Sheffield Wednesday, because the team cannot seem to find a win. In many cases, defeat at home to Huddersfield would have been the final straw. However, the Wednesday board have given him a vote of confidence and with Milan Mandaric reportedly looking to sell the club, perhaps his priorities lie elsewhere. This should be a comfortable win for Blackpool. 2-0.
Charlton vs. Ipswich
|Stephens in form for Charlton|
Charlton kept their fifth clean sheet in the space of under two months when they beat Doncaster 2-0 on Tuesday night. It was an excellent volley from Dale Stephens which opened the scoring, and now the Addicks are looking fairly safe. Ipswich are very much your bog standard Championship team, in that they are unpredictable. They never seem to put together a particularly telling sequence of results, and have won five, drawn five and lost six of their games, sitting in midtable since the beginning. There is little separate the teams. 1-1.
Doncaster vs. QPR
|Big win for Doncaster last Friday|
Doncaster got an important 2-1 win over Yeovil last Friday, despite having 10 men towards the end, and Mark Duffy’s late free-kick capped a promising performance from the winger. However, it is one thing to do well against the Championship’s bottom club, it is another to do it against one of the top teams in the division. QPR picked up a sixth 1-0 win of the season against Charlton last week. Notably, QPR have had the majority of possession in all but one of their matches this season (that one surprisingly coming against Yeovil), they seem to have a knack for holding onto the ball and waiting for their opponent to lose focus. It could be a similar story at Doncaster. 0-1.
Huddersfield vs. Burnley
|Positive return from Clayton|
Huddersfield got a deserved 2-1 win at Sheffield Wednesday last week, having been boosted by the return of Adam Clayton and James Vaughan from injury and suspension respectively. Playmaker Clayton in particular had a big impact, scoring and grabbing and assist, though striker James Vaughan may need some time to return to match fitness. Burnley did a lot of defending to get their point at Nottingham Forest last week, which will go down as a decent result. However, the pressure will be on them this week, because Leicester and QPR level on points, will both be expected to win. The Clarets face a difficult run of games between now and Christmas, and with a small squad, this might be where results start to dwindle. 1-1.
Leicester vs. Millwall
|Good charity work from Millwall FC|
Leicester have home advantage this weekend, as promotion rivals Burnley and QPR are both playing away. The Foxes bounced back from their loss against Nottingham Forest to take three points at Ipswich last weekend, which suggests that the derby defeat was simply a one-off result. Top teams always need to be wary of complacency when they play Millwall though, as QPR, Burnley and Blackpool all found to their cost. The Lions have a habit of excelling against the higher teams, and a scrappy win over Barnsley last week keeps them well above the relegation zone. As a footnote, the club deserves much credit for their work in support of Prostate Cancer UK, after playing in a white strip to raise awareness last week. 2-1.
Middlesbrough vs. Bolton
|Shay joins up with old rivals|
Bolton are making great strides forward now, having won three consecutive games, and the Trotters could move into the top half for the first time this season with a win. Jermaine Beckford scored again at Watford last week and is one of the in-form strikers in the Championship, having netted in five of his last six games. This is a first home match for Aitor Karanka in charge of Middlesbrough. After defeat at Leeds, although it was a good performance, his first few games could go either way. The fact that Middlesbrough have got such a big squad suggests that it might take Karanka a few weeks to settle into the job, and assess which players are part of his plans. Goalkeeper Shay Given arrives on a short-term loan from Aston Villa due to Jason Steele’s suspension, perhaps surprisingly after he had spent so much of his career at rivals Newcastle. The last time he played, he looked very shaky in Villa’s Carling Cup semi-final defeat to Bradford, and he could struggle due to a severe lack of match practice. Bolton might just have the momentum to win this. 1-2.
Watford vs. Yeovil
|Gary Johnson's side struggling|
This is a must-win game for both clubs, for different reasons. Watford were looking a reliable bet for the play-offs just a few weeks ago, but with a 1-0 loss against Bolton last week, they have fallen down to tenth. A defeat on Saturday would be the first time Watford have lost four consecutive home games since December 2007, so they must recover quickly from this downturn in form. The Hornets have a good opportunity to do so when they play Yeovil. The Glovers have lost their last three, six points adrift of safety, and they will still be reeling from their late loss at Doncaster last time out, despite having a man advantage towards the end. Yeovil have nothing to lose, but if Watford cannot win this one then it is difficult to see them making the play-offs. 2-0.
Wigan vs. Derby
|Derby - no mugs|
Sunday’s game sees two teams who, like virtually everyone in the Championship, have realistic hopes of getting into the play-offs. Wigan went down to a surprising loss at home to Brighton last week, which was their first defeat at the DW Stadium. It will be a disappointment for Owen Coyle, because the Latics were unbeaten in four matches beforehand. However, they still have the best defensive record outside the top three, and play a Derby side who have scored more goals than any other team in the league. Not only that, but they have also kept back-to-back clean sheets, which suggests that they are improving defensively under Steve McClaren. 1-1.