Merry Christmas! The key Boxing Day game is undoubtedly the late kick-off at the Etihad, as Man City who have won eight out of their last nine, can overtake a Liverpool side who currently occupy top spot. There’s a clash of two form teams at St James’s Park as Newcastle host Stoke, and a key game at both ends of the table takes place in East London, as relegation strugglers West Ham look to beat title contenders Arsenal.
Hull vs. Man Utd
Four consecutive wins is just what was required for Manchester United, but they still face a challenge to reach the Champions League spots. Unlike the teams above them, United have never really looked particularly frightening this season, and at six points off fourth, there is work to be done. Despite just one win in seven, and a late two points dropped at West Brom last week, Hull still have a comfortable cushion of seven points between themselves and the drop zone. At home they are a very compact team, having conceded just three goals in eight games at the KC Stadium this season, so it will be difficult for Man United to break them down. They might just provide another setback for David Moyes’s hopes of a Champions League place next season. 1-1.
Aston Villa vs. Crystal Palace
Saturday’s 2-1 loss at Stoke saw a third consecutive defeat for Aston Villa. For a team relying heavily on picking up points on the road, back-to-back away losses are obviously not ideal. It is important then, that they beat Crystal Palace. Thankfully for Villa, a solid Palace defence has just been softened by Newcastle, who humbled the Eagles 3-0 at Selhurst Park. With none of the bottom half teams winning last week though, the damage is limited, as Crystal Palace remain just one point away from safety. Villa operate with a counter-attacking system, and work best when the opposition pushes men forward. But Pulis always sets up his teams to be organized defensively, even more so away from home. A combination of these factors may result in a stalemate. 0-0.
Cardiff vs. Southampton
The writing was seemingly on the wall for Malky Mackay after the match against Liverpool, where he looked to be waving goodbye to the Cardiff fans, in anticipation of being sacked. However, someone in the boardroom must have been talking sense to Vincent Tan, because it looks as though Mackay will take charge of this match. Hopefully Tan will be able to take a step back now, and allow the players to get on with their games, without any uncertainty. Southampton are without a win in six games now, two of those being draws. A dip in results was inevitable in some ways. The team started the season with a high pressing, fast tempo game, which can be difficult to sustain. Cardiff have been strong at home, so they might take advantage of Southampton’s poor form. 2-1.
Chelsea vs. Swansea
Chelsea got a reasonable draw at Arsenal on Monday, with Jose’s defensive tactics. The one positive is a second clean sheet in twelve Premier League games, but it was only because they were so happy to sit back and let Arsenal have the ball. If they were five points clear at the top that would be an understandable approach, yet it seemed like a missed opportunity to stamp some authority on the title race. Swansea went down to an unfortunate late defeat to Everton on Sunday. They could be starting a poor run of form, because three of their next four league games are against Chelsea, Man City and Man United. With Michu and Wilfried Bony back fit, they might be able to score past a vulnerable Chelsea defence, but Mourinho’s men will scrape a win. 2-1.
Everton vs. Sunderland
Everton’s bubble is showing no signs of bursting. They have taken thirteen points from a possible fifteen, and their only defeat this season was back in early October. The one concern would be the form of Romelu Lukaku. The Belgian has failed to score in his last four games and could, potentially, see a barren spell. If Everton’s bubble isn’t bursting, Sunderland’s has barely been blown. They have already beaten Chelsea and Man City this season, yet cannot seem to string two results together. They have failed to score more often than not under Poyet, and therein lies the problem - there is a real lack of confidence going forward. Just three points away so far for the Black Cats suggests this will be a routine one for Everton. 2-0.
Newcastle vs. Stoke
Things are looking up for both sets of supporters. A Newcastle side who have lost just once in their last eight host a Stoke team unbeaten in four, and both have enjoyed wins over the elite in recent weeks. Newcastle look a much better team with Yohan Cabaye in, and it was the Frenchman who was at the heart of their win at Crystal Palace. Stoke could consider themselves slightly fortunate in their win over Villa, scoring with their two shots on target. Even with Mark Hughes’s more attacking approach, they’ve not always been clinical, which is an area they will look to improve. Newcastle’s only home defeat this season came in mid-September, while Stoke haven’t won away since August. Home win. 2-0.
Norwich vs. Fulham
Rene Meulensteen will be disappointed at the manner of Fulham’s defeats to Everton and Man City. The team had been competitive in those games, on both occasions they were drawing midway through the second half, but lost their defensive grip at the end. This is perhaps where having the oldest squad in the division has cost Fulham, because they have conceded 41% of their goals in the last twenty minutes of matches. A run of just one defeat in five for Norwich means they can go into this game with an aim, rather than a desperate need, of three points. Chris Hughton deserves credit for the way he has finally galvanized the squad, made up of a lot of high-ego, expensive signings, after a difficult first few months. 2-1.
Tottenham vs. West Brom
Tim Sherwood has been rewarded for Tottenham’s win at Southampton with the full-time manager’s job at White Hart Lane, a contract running until summer 2015. Considering Sherwood lacks experience as a manager, this seems like a bizarre appointment. If you’re going to sack Andre Villas-Boas, why replace him with someone with less knowhow? Keith Downing is likely to only be in charge of West Brom temporarily. However, he should get full marks for his first game. Both his substitutes, Gera and Vydra, combined to give the Baggies a late equalizer against Hull. West Brom play two defensive midfielders, Yacob and Mulumbu, which means it could be difficult for Tottenham to break them down given their narrow style of play. This could be a low-scoring affair. 1-0.
West Ham vs. Arsenal
Arsenal will expect to see lots of the ball here. Against Chelsea they had a very patient approach, where they tried to dominate the midfield, and Sam Allardyce will be content to let them have possession. His West Ham side are without a win in four. Yes, two of those games were away to Liverpool and Man United, yet they also failed to score past Crystal Palace and Sunderland. A goal at Old Trafford will boost Carlton Cole, yet it is difficult to see him thriving against the strength of Vermaelen and Mertesacker in Arsenal’s defence. A concern for the Gunners will be the decreasing form of Aaron Ramsey. His confidence is key to their title chances, but he has gone off the boil since the start of December. It might be a wise move for Arsene Wenger to leave him out of a couple of matches over this Christmas & New Year period, to make him fight for a place, as Arsenal have plenty of other good midfielders. If they can grab a goal in the first half, this should be a comfortable game for the Gunners. 0-2.
Man City vs. Liverpool
After a horribly inconsistent start, Man City are becoming a brute force in the title race. Concerns over their away form are being eradicated, with four wins and a draw from their last five games on the road in all forms. They have a distinct ability to outscore the opposition. City have only failed to score at least three goals once in their last nine matches, which makes the ‘Hart or Pantilimon’ debate almost redundant. The Citizens are now just one point off top spot, which is currently occupied by their opponents, Liverpool. The Suarez Show continued at Anfield on Saturday, but manager Brendan Rodgers has definitely done the right thing by labelling Man City as title favourites. Making that type of comment alleviates the pressure from his own side. They may get some joy down the left with Pablo Zabaleta a doubt, and Clichy struggled to adapt to right-back against Fulham. The Reds have a very young team though, and they will struggle against very powerful opposition. 3-1.
This Boxing Day, each of the established top three have challenging games. Leicester host fellow promotion-contenders Reading, while QPR and Burnley have tough trips to Nottingham Forest and Middlesbrough respectively. There’s a battle in the south-west between two of last season’s promoted clubs, Bournemouth and Yeovil. Leeds will look to move on from the disappointment of being held by Barnsley on their short trip to Blackpool, who have lost four consecutive games.
Charlton vs. Brighton
Two teams with a defence-first philosophy. Only one team in the bottom half has conceded less goals than Charlton, while no-one outside the automatic promotion places has let in less than Brighton. Charlton captain Johnnie Jackson misses one more game through suspension, after a rash challenge in the match against Yeovil. He is one of the Addicks’ best players and they will look forward to his return, having taken just two points from their last five and continuing to look nervously over their shoulder. Brighton failed to get past Huddersfield on Saturday in a frustrating 0-0 draw, but following an injury, Leandro Ulloa might start his first game in two months after coming on as a sub in recent matches. If he is back to full fitness, Ulloa will provide a big test for the opposition defence. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Simon Church of Charlton, who has only scored once in his last ten games. 0-1.
Watford vs. Millwall
Giuseppe Sannino prepares for his first home game in charge of Watford, after a reasonable draw at Ipswich on Saturday, thanks to Troy Deeney’s late leveller. Still, the Hornets are without a win in ten games, having lost their last five at home, which is something that must improve under the new regime. Millwall’s defensive woes continued against Middlesbrough, with some very sloppy play at the back. Concerningly for Steve Lomas, the Lions have taken just two points away from home since September, and they now have two games on the road between now and New Year. The fickle fans have turned against him, and he now has a challenge to motivate his players, and stop the team from being drawn into a relegation battle. He has a thankless task. 2-1.
Barnsley vs. Bolton
Barnsley fans will have come away from Wilson's first game in charge, at Leeds, with mixed feelings. On the plus side, they drew away to a promotion chasing team, kept a rare clean sheet and silenced the normally prolific Ross McCormack. The minus side, they are still bottom of the table. Bolton have lost their last two away games, and after a disappointing home draw with Charlton, they are struggling to find enough consistency to climb the table. Jermaine Beckford has not scored in any of his last four appearances, and was restricted to the role of impact sub on Saturday, with Joe Mason starting instead. A draw is the safe bet here. 1-1.
Blackburn vs. Sheff Wed
Often formidable at home, Blackburn have lost just one of their last nine games at Ewood Park – winning six of them. After a dry spell of form, Jordan Rhodes has now netted in his last two, getting the winner at Yeovil. Manager Gary Bowyer has said he would like to sign Tom Cairney on a permanent deal from Hull, and you wonder if a swap deal with Rhodes might be on the cards there, because Hull are in need of a striker. Sheffield Wednesday went down to a 2-1 home loss to Bournemouth, and have recalled Chris Maguire from Coventry to add to their attacking options. They are still just two points from safety with a game in hand on Charlton, but they blew a big opportunity by losing to Bournemouth. Whoever takes the manager’s job full-time has a difficult task. With Wednesday struggling, it is difficult to see Blackburn dropping points at home. 2-1.
Bournemouth vs. Yeovil
Pleasingly for Bournemouth, they have won their last two away games to go a healthy eight points clear of the drop zone. To boot, Lewis Grabban has now netted twice in his last three games, and looks to be rediscovering his early season form that helped put the Cherries in the top half of the table. They play fellow promoted club Yeovil, who lost 1-0 at home to Blackburn last week, after a four match unbeaten run. Gary Johnson’s side can be proud of how they have remained competitive in this division, having looked almost dead and buried when they lost at Doncaster back in November. However, a quick sequence of games now may challenge a small, and inexperienced squad at Huish Park. A draw in the battle of the south-west. 1-1.
Doncaster vs. Ipswich
Doncaster have conceded nine goals in their last three games. A recurring theme with the Rovers seems to be that they are decent defensively when they start well, but if they give away a goal early, the defence caves in. Paul Dickov’s side have conceded three goals or more on six occasions this season, yet they have also kept a respectable five clean sheets, so the key will be to not let the heads drop when they lose a goal. Having been a side very reliant on home form last season, Ipswich are now unbeaten away since September, leaving some to consider them play-off contenders. They now face two of last season’s promoted clubs, and struggling Charlton, so they have a good opportunity to pick up some more points. 1-1.
Huddersfield vs. Derby
Huddersfield are beginning to look good at the back. They have only conceded five goals in their last six, and have managed to restrict their opponents to few shooting opportunities. However, just how far their defence has come will get the ultimate test. They play a Derby County side who have scored fifteen goals in their last five, and are on a historic run of seven consecutive wins. Whenever McClaren’s side attack, they dominate the opposition by sheer force of numbers, with so many runners from midfield. The good news for Huddersfield though, is that centre-back Richard Keogh has picked up a knee injury, and will miss this match. Derby are on a remarkable run, but one wonders how long it will continue. They might just have to settle for a draw at the McAlpine. 1-1.
Leicester vs. Reading
Leicester got a massive win at QPR last week. They only had 38% possession, but managed to grind out a win thanks, in no small way, to an excellent performance from Kasper Schmeichel. A result like that will give the Foxes belief that they can go up automatically. Reading have been somewhat inconsistent in the run-up to Christmas, having had a pattern of ‘win one, lose one’, during their December matches. After a 2-1 home defeat to Wigan, they face a battle to stay in the play-off places in New Year, as they are only one point above seventh place. Leicester will be buoyed by their win at QPR and will have the confidence to take three points. 2-1.
Middlesbrough vs. Burnley
Middlesbrough got their second win under the stewardship of Aitor Karanka, in a 2-0 victory at Millwall. It was their first away win since the second match of the season, with Emmanuel Ledesma scoring a fantastic goal, but it is important Boro follow up that result to move up the table. Burnley go into Christmas top of the tree after a 2-1 win at home to Blackpool, having only lost once since August. Danny Ings scored his seventeenth goal of the season in that match, and he is proving to be a constant goal threat. If Middlesbrough could steal a draw from this match, that would be a good result and something for Karanka to build on. 1-1.
Wigan vs. Birmingham
Birmingham will have a difficult job to continue their run of three straight away wins, against a Wigan side experiencing apparent revival under Uwe Rosler. The Latics have won back-to-back league games since the German took the helm, and if they can put a few wins together now, the likes of Leeds, Forest and Reading in the play-off places will be looking nervously below. As well as perfect away form of late, Birmingham are on a seven match unbeaten streak. They are starting to look difficult to break down as well, having kept back-to-back clean sheets. However, the Blues would do well to pick a result against improving Wigan. 2-1.
Blackpool vs. Leeds
Blackpool have lost each of their last four matches and are sliding rapidly down the table. Ironically, it is after Paul Ince came back from his five match stadium ban that they have started to lose games – maybe he’s a bad omen! Leeds have kept three clean sheets from their last four games, although they were left frustrated by rivals Barnsley on Saturday, Ross McCormack unable to work his magic on that occasion. Blackpool do not concede many at Bloomfield Road so this might be a tight game, but Leeds are in far superior form and might be able to grab a win. 0-1.
Nottm Forest vs. QPR
A QPR side who have the best defensive record in the league, go to play a Forest side who have kept three straight clean sheets. In those games, Forest have only scored one goal, while only one team outside the bottom six has scored less than QPR. Put simply, this does not have the makings of a high-scoring game. It is surprising that Harry Redknapp’s side have struggled so much to score goals, because they have a wealth of quality, experienced attacking players. However, they might be able to bounce back from their first home defeat against Leicester. Nottingham Forest may struggle with this congested period of fixtures - injuries to key players have damaged their squad. 0-1.