Here are my predictions for this weekend's Premier League matches:
Man Utd vs. Newcastle
This is a massive match for Manchester United, after their 1-0 home defeat to Everton on Wednesday. It is vital that they win at least four of their five league games between now and New Year, because how close they are to the Champions League spots will have an impact on the quality of players they can attract in January. Worryingly for United, their opponents on Saturday are one point above them in the table. Newcastle went down to a 3-0 defeat at Swansea, which came as a surprise following four straight wins. Manchester United’s task will be made more difficult without the suspended Wayne Rooney, but his absence could give Shinji Kagawa the chance to flourish in his favoured central role. The Red Devils have not lost back-to-back home matches since May 2002, and if Moyes cannot get a reaction from his team, then serious questions need to be asked. 2-1.
Crystal Palace vs. Cardiff
Palace’s 1-0 win over West Ham on Tuesday gives them some hope of staying up under Tony Pulis, and they can take heart from the fact that they have only conceded one goal in their last four games. From a goalscoring perspective though, the Eagles are the weakest of all the teams fighting the drop, and they face a Cardiff side who have kept two clean sheets out of their last three away matches. Malky Mackay’s side do not tend to do much attacking on the road, and are often content to settle for a draw. This game might be a case of them soaking up Crystal Palace pressure. 1-1.
Liverpool vs. West Ham
I commented, before Liverpool’s last match, that they are reliant on a star performance from Luis Suarez to win games. If they are, they certainly got it on Wednesday. Four goals and an assist from the Uruguayan against Norwich gave the Reds a 5-1 win. Suarez is now the Premier League’s top scorer, despite having missed the first seven games. Brendan Rodgers deserves credit for how he has handled Suarez throughout all of his misbehaviour last season, and he is reaping the rewards. West Ham have failed to score in four of their last six league games, and are now back down to seventeenth after a 1-0 defeat at Crystal Palace. The Hammers might have a better defensive record than most teams but with Suarez on form, there is simply no stopping him. 2-0.
Southampton vs. Man City
Manchester City have taken a step towards improving their away form with a 3-2 victory at West Brom, they must start chalking up wins on the road now. The goalkeeping issue is still a concern, as Costel Pantilimon conceded two late goals at the Hawthorns, both of which looked preventable. A big test of Pellegrini’s nous as a manager will be how he handles this situation, he might choose to buy a keeper in January. Either way, getting the goalkeeper decision right is key to City’s title chances. After their 3-2 home defeat to Aston Villa, I said before that match that they might start to slip down the table, and now they have lost three consecutive games. For this match, the Saints could struggle against the power of Man City’s attack, and they will play a reserve keeper themselves, with Paulo Gazzaniga in goal. 1-3.
Stoke vs. Chelsea
This will be a difficult match for Chelsea, because Stoke have conceded just three goals in seven home games this season. They have only been beaten once at the Britannia, and that was back in September. You might say this is glorifying Stoke’s negative mentality, yet playing against a side like Chelsea, teams need to be negative to make themselves difficult to break down. Chelsea limped over the line in their 4-3 win at Sunderland, for which they have a stand-out performance from Eden Hazard to thank. However, on a narrow pitch at Stoke, it might be difficult for the small technicians such as Hazard, and also Juan Mata, to create space. Stoke will congest the midfield and keep it tight at the back. They’ve already taken a point from Manchester City at the Britannia, so I might tip the Potters for a shock win on Saturday. 1-0.
West Brom vs. Norwich
West Brom have only won one of their last eight, but this is nothing for Baggies fans to be too concerned about, because they have played six of the current top half teams in that time. The good news is that Saido Berahino has signed a new long-term contract with the club, he is a big talent and will only improve with more first team football. West Brom will look to win against a Norwich side who cannot seem to perform away from home. They have lost six of their seven matches on the road after their tonking at Liverpool, which makes their home games all the more important for survival. 2-1.
Sunderland vs. Tottenham
Sunderland are now five points away from safety, and they could well become cut adrift at the bottom of the table. Though you wouldn’t immediately highlight goals as a problem for a team who has just scored three against Chelsea, lone striker Steven Fletcher has not scored since October, and that is another concern for Sunderland’s survival bid. Tottenham came from behind to win late on at Fulham on Wednesday, an important result for Andre Villas-Boas’s position as Spurs manager, and they should take momentum from that match. Tottenham are just three points off fourth place now, so their quest for Champions League football will be right back on track with a win. 0-2.
Fulham vs. Aston Villa
Fulham missed their chance to get up-and-running under Rene Meulensteen when they lost at home to Spurs, despite leading with twenty minutes to go. This is the type of match any team in the relegation zone needs to be looking to win, but more so in Fulham’s case, because after this one they face Everton and Manchester City. If Fulham go into January without having picked up another couple of wins, then you cannot imagine star man Dimitar Berbatov wanting to hang around. Well, not in the transfer market at least. There is a lot less pressure on Aston Villa. Paul Lambert's side have not been beaten away from home since August, and climbed into the top half after a 3-2 win at Southampton on Wednesday. It is clear that Villa tend to do better on the road. Home teams who try to throw the kitchen sink at them can run the risk of putting too many men forward, and so Lambert’s side often capitalize due to the speed of their attacking players. Don’t be surprised to see a fourth away win of the season for Villa. 1-2.
Arsenal vs. Everton
Arsenal hardly needed to get out of second gear in their win over Hull, but now begins a very testing fixture period for the Gunners. After this match, Arsenal have back-to-back matches against Man City and Chelsea, before potentially tough games at West Ham and Newcastle, in the run up to New Year. This is a vital time in Arsenal’s season. Everton showed big promise in their quest for Europe when they won at Old Trafford on Wednesday, leaving many to consider them contenders for a top four spot. However, you just wonder whether Everton will be able to repeat that performance four days later. Looking at the defence, Sylvain Distin is 35, Jagielka is 31, so it will be difficult for them to face two top teams in such a short space of time. They will have to deal with a lot given the attacking nature of fullbacks Coleman and Oviedo, and they are up against a fully rested Olivier Giroud. 2-0.
Swansea vs. Hull
Ten years ago, this would have been a fourth tier fixture, and that is testament to how far these two clubs have come. Swansea have scored more goals than any team in the bottom half, while no team in the bottom half has conceded less than Hull. Swansea might find it difficult to sustain their goalscoring record though, because they now have all three strikers, Michu, Bony and now Vazquez, injured. Hull have lost three of their previous four, but they also managed to beat a Suarez-infused Liverpool. Hull have lost their last four on the road, which gives Swansea the advantage. 2-1.