Happy New Year! The big Premier League game is the late kick-off at Old Trafford, as Manchester United play Tottenham Hotspur. Both teams are beginning to find some momentum, after having vastly underperformed so far this season. Two other underperformers are Fulham and West Ham, who go head-to-head at Craven Cottage, with both sides currently sitting in the drop zone. Aston Villa and Norwich will look to avoid getting sucked into the relegation dogfight on their trips to Sunderland and Crystal Palace respectively. Here is our preview of the first round of Premier League matches in 2014.
Swansea vs. Man City
Strange though it might sound, Manchester City’s 1-0 win over Crystal Palace on Saturday was as important as any thrashing they’ve handed out this season. They showed their ability to grind out a win with a rotated team, when not playing their best football and struggling for momentum. In nine of their twelve league wins prior to that match, they had scored inside twenty minutes, making the rest of the game much easier. Going an hour without scoring provided a certain test of City’s nerve and steel, which they passed. Swansea could do with a good start to 2014, having only taken thirty-nine points from thirty-seven league games in this calendar year. They have kept clean sheets on both previous occasions that Man City have visited the Liberty, but that is unlikely to happen again. City have an array of attacking talent capable of penetrating any defence. 1-2.
Arsenal vs. Cardiff
Trips to West Ham and Newcastle might have proved difficult for Arsenal, after a disappointing sequence of results playing some of the top teams. They picked up maximum points from tough games away to West Ham and Newcastle, with crucially Giroud getting back onto the scoresheet, after a run of seven games without a goal. Cardiff are still deciding on their new manager, although Ole Gunnar Solskjaer the hot favourite. Whoever takes over could have a difficult job on their hands, because the three teams in the relegation zone at the moment are considered to be established Premier League clubs. With Cardiff not having an full-time in place boss yet, they should not give league leaders Arsenal too much to worry about. 2-0.
Crystal Palace vs. Norwich
Crystal Palace are showing continued signs of promise. They reduced Man City to just a one goal margin of victory at the Etihad, which is more than any other team has done when going to the blue half of Manchester. Palace also remain outside the bottom three, with West Ham and Fulham failing to win, so last weekend was a case of damage limitation for the Eagles. With a victory on Wednesday, they will go above their opponents, Norwich. The Canaries have now lost their last two matches and are without a win in four games, having been poor on the road. With Crystal Palace gaining confidence after such a good performance at Man City, they might edge this. 1-0.
Fulham vs. West Ham
Two teams who are hugely underperforming this season, and sit inside the relegation zone. Fulham completed a poor 2013 with a crushing 6-0 defeat at newly-promoted Hull. There have been a few times this season when Fulham get a good result, you believe they are back to their best and the quality in the squad will shine through. And yet, they can never seem to follow it up, as the 6-0 loss sums up the lack of work rate and effort in the team. West Ham are doing equally poorly, as a crippling injury list has played it’s part in their difficult campaign. Both teams are struggling for confidence and momentum, so a bore draw is on the cards. 1-1.
Liverpool vs. Hull
Luis Suarez had a rare quiet game against Chelsea, meaning Liverpool could not create anything that afternoon, at least not from open play. The Reds have just lost to Man City and Chelsea in quick succession, which eradicates any hopes of a title push. As a club, if you have any hopes of winning the league, it is imperative you take points from the big teams and Liverpool have not been able to do that. Hull come into this match off the back of a massive 6-0 win over Fulham. They are currently tenth in the table overall, but if the Premier League table was based on points away from home, the Tigers would be nineteenth. Suarez should be back to his silky best. 2-0.
Southampton vs. Chelsea
There were times in Southampton’s 2-1 defeat at Everton where they played some good football, having had the more possession, and they were ultimately unlucky to lose. This match is the last of a tough run of fixtures for the Saints, as they play a Chelsea side who came from behind to beat Liverpool on Sunday. Mourinho’s men defended well. Gary Cahill was particularly impressive, which that is a positive in Chelsea’s title ambitions, because they have not been strong enough at the back until recently. That game could give the Blues the confidence to take another clean sheet. 0-2.
Stoke vs. Everton
Everton made five changes to the team for their match against Southampton. They still came away with a win against top half opposition, and this is a good indicator of the strength of their squad. They managed to win without key players such as Tim Howard, Gareth Barry and Phil Jagielka, and generally Martinez must be pleased with how his side bounced back from defeat to Sunderland. Stoke come into this match off the back off consecutive tonkings at Newcastle and Tottenham. It is worth noting that they are a different team at home though, having taken eleven points from their last five matches at the Britannia. No team has conceded less home goals than Stoke, so Everton might have to settle for a draw here. 1-1.
Sunderland vs. Aston Villa
Despite being bottom of the table, Sunderland are unbeaten in five, if you include their cup victory over Chelsea. They showed spirit to fight back from 2-0 down at Cardiff to take a point, and Gus Poyet deserves credit, because he has kept them in with a chance of survival. Aston Villa ended their run of four straight defeats when they played Swansea, but could only manage a 1-1 draw. Remarkably they had just 27% possession, which points to a problem in their lack of experience and knowhow in midfield. The problem with both of these teams is that they do not tend to attack their opponents until they fall behind, so this could end up a stalemate. 0-0.
West Brom vs. Newcastle
Nicolas Anelka may face a ban after his controversial celebration at West Ham, but from a purely footballing perspective, West Brom will not miss him too much. Anelka severely lacks pace and work rate, and the two goals he scored were just his first strikes of the season. When it comes to French attacking players, Newcastle are much better placed, as Loic Remy is the third-highest goalscorer in the Premier League. Toon lost 1-0 at home to Arsenal on Sunday, but were by far the dominant team in the second half and looked a constant threat going forward. Most notably, Hatem Ben Arfa displayed bags of pace and looks more than capable of reviving his early season form. Newcastle have won four of their last six away from home and this could be another happy trip home for the Magpies. 1-2.
Man Utd vs. Tottenham
The stand-out game of the weekend. Manchester United, who have won six straight games in all forms, play a Tottenham side improving under Tim Sherwood. United look to be gradually building momentum, with Danny Welbeck starting to score goals, having netted four times in his last four appearances. Tottenham got a comfortable home win over Stoke on Sunday, and are now only three points away from the Champions League places. Roberto Soldado scored in that match, yet it was another penalty from him, and the Spaniard has still only scored once from open play this season. Manchester United should grind out another win to push them closer to the top four. 1-0.
In the Championship, Huddersfield will look to end Burnley’s unbeaten home record, as the Claret’s have been overtaken in the promotion race by Derby, who host Uwe Rosler’s new Wigan side. QPR look to get back to winning – and scoring – ways against relegation strugglers Doncaster, having failed to score in their last three. That promises to be a difficult away game for Doncaster at the bottom, likewise Charlton have a tough match at in-form Ipswich, while Barnsley go to face a Birmingham side unbeaten in nine.
Birmingham vs. Barnsley
The mystifying difference between Birmingham’s home and away form continues. The Blues took another three points on the road at Blackburn, yet they are still struggling to find that elusive home win. Lee Clark’s side will not get a better chance to break their duck than when they play bottom of the table Barnsley, a side who have taken just five points away from home. Any hope of an instant impact from Danny Wilson, who was recently appointed manager, has been dashed by back-to-back home defeats. Barnsley lost 2-1 to Derby, a fabulous solo goal from Thomasz Cywka narrowing the scoreline, but the Tykes remain five points off safety. They will struggle to score past Birmingham, who have looked increasingly solid in recent weeks. 1-0.
Bolton vs. Middlesbrough
It has been announced that Bolton’s Parent Company are now £163 million in debt. Presumably this is not the fault of the club, because no wage bill or transfer spending at that level could account for so much. In this situation, you feel sorry for the fans, who have had to suffer as a result of issues outside their control. This mess could have a negative influence on the players, and their confidence will not be helped by looking at their next opponents. They play a Middlesbrough team who have won three straight games, keeping clean sheets in each of those matches. After a big win over Reading, Karanka’s side are gaining momentum. 1-2.
Brighton vs. Bournemouth
Goal difference alone now separates Brighton from the play-offs. They have been very well organised this season, and that continued at Blackpool. Despite less possession, they restricted their opponents to just one shot on target, which is a mark of their positioning when they do not have the ball. Next up, the Seagulls face another fellow-seaside club in Bournemouth. The Cherries were unfortunate only to take a point against Ipswich, as they created quite a few more chances than their opponents. Eddie Howe’s side continue to compete impressively at this level, having now taken ten points from their last five matches, and fears of a slide into the relegation dogfight have been reduced. This could be a fourth clean sheet in five for Brighton. 1-0.
Burnley vs. Huddersfield
Just one win in four has seen Burnley drop out of the automatic promotion places. They have not scored in either of their last two games, yet they have only conceded five goals in their last nine, so it is pivotal that Ings and Vokes start scoring again quickly. Sean Dyche would not have chosen this time to play Huddersfield. The Terriers will remember their victory over Burnley just a month ago, and come into this match fresh from a satisfying 5-1 win over Yeovil Town. They attacked ruthlessly and with purpose, as Danny Ward enjoyed a fine performance. Burnley’s unbeaten home record will not last forever - Huddersfield might just spring the surprise result of the day. 1-2.
Derby vs. Wigan
The big news on Sunday was that Derby climbed into the automatic promotion places, after a 2-1 win at Barnsley. Since their 5-1 trouncing of Blackpool, the Rams have always looked capable of challenging for a top two spot under Steve McClaren. Whenever they attack, they always play with so much pace and movement, as players constantly break from midfield. Two 0-0 home draws have halted Wigan’s momentum slightly, even if the second was against Burnley. In both matches they had plenty of the ball for long spells, so perhaps Rosler’s priority in January will be a striker - someone who can provide that end product. The form Derby are in at the moment, you would back them to win every time. 2-1.
Ipswich vs. Charlton
Ipswich have recently moved into the play-off places as one of the Championship’s form sides, although they dropped a late two points at Bournemouth last time out. While Ipswich are unbeaten in seven, Charlton have only won one of the same number. There could be a change at the top for the London club, with a Belgian businessman close to getting a takeover, but fans will be hoping for no change at the bottom. The Addicks are still just four points above the drop zone, having failed to beat relegation rivals Sheffield Wednesday. This will be a testing afternoon for Chris Powell’s side. 2-0.
Leeds vs. Blackburn
The Championship’s best two strikers both take to the field at Elland Road, as Ross McCormack and Jordan Rhodes face up to each other. Difficult away games against Blackpool and Nottingham Forest have seen Leeds sacrifice their play-off place to Ipswich, so it is vital they get back on the road with a home win. Blackburn could be playing their last match with Jordan Rhodes, as a queue of Premier League clubs are sure start making bids for him, once the New Year bells chime. Blackburn have taken less than a third of their overall points tally from away matches. They would do well to get a result at Leeds, who have not lost at home since mid-September. 2-1.
Millwall vs. Leicester
A point at relegation rivals Doncaster was a good result for Millwall. Caretaker manager Neil Harris has never managed before - he had only been appointed as a coach this summer - so a draw in his first game is a steady start. His next challenge however, is to guide his Lions in their next match, versus the Foxes. Leicester stuck three past Millwall in the match at the King Power at the end of November, and since that win, they have picked up some important wins. But Leicester have also shown earlier, in defeats at Charlton, Wednesday and Doncaster, that they can be vulnerable when playing away to teams fighting down at the bottom. If Millwall players rally around Harris, they can definitely take a result from this one. 1-1.
QPR vs. Doncaster
Harry Redknapp must be at a loss to understand why they cannot score more goals, as QPR have failed to net in each of their last three matches. In those three games, they have had an average of 58% possession, yet only three shots on target per match. This suggests that the midfield needs to show more ambition on the ball, and try to create openings. Doncaster cannot seem to score themselves, having found the net just once in their last five games. In fact, their last win actually came against QPR back in November, having taken a pitiful return of two points from seven games since. QPR need to return to winning ways. 1-0.
Reading vs. Nottm Forest
Reading are now near the bottom of the form table, having lost their last three matches. Nigel Adkins has plenty of work to do, if he wants champagne tasting to be a celebration of more than just New Year. Improving the midfield this January must be Reading’s main target. Nottingham Forest, meanwhile, will join the likes of Leeds, Wigan and others in the hunt for a striker. Billy Davies’s side have only conceded one goal in their last five, so a goalscorer would strengthen their promotion chances no end. They have completed back-to-back wins over fellow-contenders QPR and Leeds, meaning they are just five points away from the top two. Reading were a safe bet at home at the beginning of the season, but they have now won just one of their last five at the Madjeski. On respective current form, the Royals would do well to draw. 1-1.
Sheff Wed vs. Blackpool
A match against Blackpool was Dave Jones’s last in charge of Sheffield Wednesday, and this could be a similar story for caretaker boss Stuart Gray. Speaking publicly, Wednesday chairman Milan Mandaric has given Gray two more games in charge, before deciding on the next full-time manager. Blackpool won the aforementioned match 2-0, but endured a complete loss of form after that result. They have now taken just one point from their last six since, and following defeat to Brighton, boos rang out across Bloomfield Road. Paul Ince has a difficult task to stop the rot. 2-1.
Yeovil vs. Watford
Yeovil have shipped eight goals in their last two matches, and are on a three game losing streak. Them and Barnsley will have their work cut out, if they want to remain a Championship club this calendar year. Watford on the other hand, have taken a respectable five points from Giuseppe Sannino’s first three games in charge. They kept a second clean sheet of his reign against QPR, as Sannino prefers a more defensive setup to predecessor Zola. This match is a good opportunity for Watford to propel themselves back into the top half. 0-2.