This weekend, all eyes will be on Monday night's game. Top of the table Arsenal look to recover from their 6-3 defeat at Man City when they play Chelsea, who will go above the Gunners with a win. Liverpool will temporarily top the table if they beat Cardiff in the weekend's early kick-off, while Man City can apply extra heat to the title race, if they pick up a win at relegation contenders Fulham. West Brom and Tottenham have their first game without their managers when they play Hull and Southampton respectively, Roberto Martinez returns to Swansea as manager of Everton, as bottom of the table Sunderland will be desperate for a win against an improving Norwich side. Here is the preview to the action.
Liverpool vs. Cardiff
A 5-0 win away to Tottenham, without Gerrard or Sturridge, is a very big result for Liverpool. Jordan Henderson filled Gerrard’s slot immaculately, and up front… well, it doesn’t matter if you’ve got Suarez. You would expect the Reds to replicate that performance on Saturday, because they have won all but one of their home games, and have not failed to score three or more goals at Anfield since September. September is the last time Cardiff scored away from home. They have failed to net in each of their last four matches on the road, as creativity remains a problem for Malky Mackay’s side. Mackay recently made comments about the need for signings in January. With the club having spent around £25 million in the summer, and not in immediate relegation danger, it seems like a bizarre thing to say. More than anything, the players they have signed need more time to settle, but the relegationship between board and management will not help that. 3-0.
Crystal Palace vs. Newcastle
Crystal Palace went down to a narrow 2-1 defeat at Chelsea last time out, but Pulis’s chances of saving the Eagles are still intact with the side one point off safety. They are looking strong defensively, having kept a clean sheet in each of their last three home games. Despite improvements over the last few weeks, Palace might get a slight reality check against Newcastle, who are currently sixth in the table. The Magpies look forward to a return for Mathieu Debuchy from injury, and Yohan Cabaye from suspension. Cabaye in particular, will make a big difference, because he can dominate games with his long-range passing ability. This could be a fifth away win of the season for Pardew’s side. 0-1.
Fulham vs. Man City
After an incredible 6-3 win at home to Arsenal, Man City have what you might expect to be a relatively routine encounter with relegation strugglers Fulham. They will have to do the business without injured Argentines Sergio Aguero and Pablo Zabaleta, who have contributed the most number of goals and assists respectively. Fulham will take heart from the fact that Man City are still only eleventh in the Premier League away form table, as ex-United coach Rene Meulensteen approaches his fourth game in charge. The goalkeeping dilemma remains a problem for City, and it’s something that Fulham will look to exploit. When either Joe Hart or Costel Pantilimon started for City in recent weeks, neither have looked convincing, which suggests Fulham might be able to take a point. 2-2.
Man Utd vs. West Ham
Three wins and three clean sheets for Manchester United will give the team confidence to go on a good run, over what are some favorable festive fixtures. The Red Devils are by no means back to the old, vintage United under Ferguson though. The absence of key players Michael Carrick and Robin van Persie will hurt them, while Rooney is a doubt with a groin injury. West Ham won at Tottenham for the second time this season. They came from behind to take a 2-1 victory, which puts them through to the semi-finals of the Carling Cup. However, there are still problems for West Ham going forward. With Kevin Nolan now suspended, there is no-one in the team who have looked particularly threatening, perhaps with the exception of Ravel Morrison who returns to Old Trafford. Both team played in midweek so substitutions could be key, in what may be a scrappy win for Man United. 1-0.
Stoke vs. Aston Villa
In a rather forgettable game, Stoke got a reasonable draw at Hull last week, which was just their fifth away point this season. At home Stoke have been much more impressive, as their only defeat at the Britannia came in September. Peter Crouch may cause problems for a very inexperienced Aston Villa defence, with Chris Herd likely to partner Ciaran Clark, as key defender Ron Vlaar is a doubt for this match. Vlaar has only missed two Premier League games for Villa, their last two, when they conceded a total of five goals against Fulham and Man United. The Dutchman is a big player for the Villains. If he is out of the side, it is difficult to see them getting a result at Stoke. 2-1.
Sunderland vs. Norwich
If you were told that Sunderland are bottom of the table, five points from safety, and have not won since mid-November, you would say they are goners. But the Black Cats have only been beaten by one goal against Chelsea and Tottenham, they have drawn their last two away games, having had lots of possession at West Ham, and they beat Chelsea in the cup midweek. Poyet’s side have shown flashes of potential, and that is why they have a good chance of beating Norwich. The Canaries have lost all but two of their away games this season. They are relying largely on results at Carrow Road to keep themselves clear of the relegation dogfight. 2-1.
West Brom vs. Hull
West Brom chairman Jeremy Peace made the controversial decision to sack manager Steve Clarke, after the 1-0 defeat at Cardiff. It seemed like a harsh sacking, but the Baggies were on a poor run of form, and they are now just two points above the relegation zone. Keith Downing will take charge for the visit of Hull, a side who aren’t in top form themselves, having taken one win from their last six. Goals remain an issue for the Tigers, because only Sunderland and Crystal Palace have scored less, so a tweaking of Steve Bruce’s attacking options could prove useful. Hull would perhaps take a point given their poor away record, while West Brom are in limbo until a new manager is appointed, so a draw is on the cards. 1-1.
Southampton vs. Tottenham
Two teams who are not in good shape. Southampton are without a win in five, and their chances of getting European football next season are ever-slipping, particularly with a tough run of games over Christmas. The post match scuffle between certain members of the Newcastle and Southampton coaching setup has not covered the club in glory, and on the pitch, things are not looking so rosy for the Saints as they were in the early weeks of the season. Tottenham are facing difficult times as well. Andre Villas-Boas was sacked after the 5-0 home loss to Liverpool, and Spurs were defeated at home to rivals West Ham in the League Cup, under interim boss Tim Sherwood. Both teams are usually quite defensive-minded, and with neither side gaining any momentum at the moment, this could be a stalemate. 0-0.
Swansea vs. Everton
Swansea’s home form has not been the best. They have only picked up ten points from eight at the Liberty, which is only the same as their away total. The return from injury of Michu and Wilfried Bony is a big plus for manager Michael Laudrup, who has recently been linked with the Tottenham job. Everton will miss impressive Barcelona-loanee Gerard Deulofeu through hamstring injury, which could be a setback for the Toffees. A draw would not be a bad result for Roberto Martinez on his return to Swansea. 1-1.
Arsenal vs. Chelsea
Losing 6-3 to Man City last Saturday was a setback for Arsenal. It was a strange match, more than for the fact that nine goals were scored, because Arsenal did not play particularly badly. The goals they conceded were due to the power of City’s attack rather than their mistakes, and the Gunners created a number of chances. The problem is that Liverpool go top ahead of them on goal difference, if Wenger’s side fail to win against another team competing for the title, Chelsea. The Blues ambled to the line in their last two home games, against Steaua Bucharest and Crystal Palace, where they were expected by many to win comfortably. However, Chelsea have taken four points from games against Man United and Man City this season. With Mourinho in charge, they will be slightly better equipped than Arsenal for a big game such as this. 1-2.
The key match in the Championship is QPR against Leicester. QPR could go six points clear of the play-offs with a win, but they will need to beat Leicester, a side who have promotion ambitions of their own. Giuseppe Sannino has his first match as manager of Watford at Ipswich, as does Danny Wilson, who prepares his new Barnsley side for a short trip to play Ross McCormack-inspired Leeds. There is a meeting between two of last season's relegated clubs from the Premier League, as Reading host Wigan, who will be preparing a play-off challenge under Uwe Rosler. Here is the preview of all the games.
QPR vs. Leicester
QPR have the chance to put themselves in a very commanding position in the promotion race. They kept their thirteenth clean sheet of the season at Blackpool last week, in a performance of efficiency, which is typical of them this season. The Rs could go six points clear of the play-offs with a win over Leicester, a side who currently occupy that third place. The Foxes have taken only one point from their last three league games, and go into this one with the slight hindrance of having played in the cup midweek. When they played Burnley, a telling statistic was that Leicester had nineteen shots but only three on target, so they were not clinical enough on that occasion. With Harry Redknapp’s managerial experience, QPR should be well prepared for an important game. 2-0.
Birmingham vs. Nottm Forest
Birmingham are unbeaten in six after a 2-0 win at Bournemouth, although they have not won at home since 1st October. They have played quite a direct style of play this season, whereas Nottingham Forest seem to prefer a more possession-based approach. In recent weeks, they have dominated against Burnley and Millwall but failed to win both of those games, and could perhaps do with another striker in January. Billy Davies’s men were held at home by Ipswich last week, in a draw which keeps them outside the play-off places, but their away form catches the eye. They have taken ten points from their last five games on the road, and this might be Forest’s fifth away win of the season. 1-2.
Bolton vs. Charlton
Bolton lost 3-2 away to Wigan on Sunday, meaning that they have now lost three of their last four, having been gaining momentum just a few weeks ago. Dougie Freedman made some comments after the match, bemoaning the ‘spirit’ of the Wigan players, who pressured the referee into giving a penalty. Although he was understandably frustrated, it is perhaps surprising he directed his statement at the Wigan players, rather than the referee. Charlton went down to a 2-0 home defeat to Derby last week, and have now lost five of their last seven. They are only one point above Sheffield Wednesday in the relegation zone, and they have a game in hand, so things are looking ominous for the Addicks. You might think Chris Powell faces a challenge to keep his job, although the lack of general communication from Charlton’s owners suggests he is there to stay - for now. 1-1.
Brighton vs. Huddersfield
Brighton are one of the Championship’s form teams, having taken an impressive sixteen points from their last seven games. They won at Middlesbrough last week, with the set piece delivery of Craig Conway continuing to prove valuable. Huddersfield looked to have dominated the match against Reading, and paid the price for not being clinical enough. Top scorer James Vaughan was left out of the match day squad, even though he was available to play. It will be interesting to see whether Vaughan will be included for this match, because if their last match is anything to go by, the Terriers could do with his composure in front of goal. 2-0.
Burnley vs. Blackpool
Burnley managed to take a good point away to Leicester last week, and they are hanging on in the top two. The Clarets have done well to keep themselves in this position. Rarely do they have lots of the ball and dominate the opponents, but they have been very good at weathering opposition’s storms and are clinical with their chances. Blackpool have offered a new contract to winger Tom Ince on Thursday, but it is difficult to say whether he will accept it. His current deal runs out in the summer, and if you’re Ince or his agent, you would receive more money from a club who has been able to sign you on a free transfer. It creates a worrying dilemma for Blackpool Football Club, a side who seem to be slipping away from play-off contention. 1-0.
Derby vs. Doncaster
Ipswich vs. Watford
Ipswich picked up a good away
point at Nottingham Forest, and in the last week Mick McCarthy has been re-united with Sylvan Ebanks-Blake, who signed on a free transfer. It is
difficult to see Ebanks-Blake having much of an impact though, as he has
suffered from a long-term injury and has been without a club since the summer. David
McGoldrick and Daryl Murphy are still likely to be Ipswich’s front pairing.
This is Giuseppe Sannino’s first match as Watford manager and, notably, his
first ever job outside Italy. Though Hornets fans would like to think he can
hit the ground running and push for the play-offs this season, this might be a
settling in period for the ex-Chievo manager. A draw away from home would be a steady
Leeds vs. Barnsley
The key selling point of this
game is that it will be Danny Wilson’s first match in his second spell as
manager of Barnsley. The Tykes are only three points away from safety and if
they could pick up a surprise win in the Yorkshire derby, that would make the
relegation battle very interesting indeed. Last week, Ross McCormack summed up
what he brings to Leeds. At Doncaster, the Whites had a vulnerable lead and were
under a lot of pressure. McCormack though, found a moment of magic to beat a
few players and grab a goal out of nowhere. Someone of his quality can change
the dynamics of a match in an instant, and he must be considered the best player
in the Championship right now. Regardless of the new manager factor, Barnsley
will struggle to contain him. 2-1.
Reading vs. Wigan
Reading got a smash-and-grab away
win at Huddersfield. Importantly, they bounced back from the 2-1 home defeat to
Bournemouth, and Billy Sharp has now scored his first two goals for the club
in quick succession. Sharp has proved at Scunthorpe, Doncaster and Southampton
that he is a natural goalscorer, and if he can gain some consistency in front
of goal that will boost Reading’s promotion chances. Uwe Rosler got exactly the
start he wanted as manager of Wigan, with a win in his first league game in
charge. The Latics have finished their European adventure, and now there are to
be no more excuses, in terms of fatigue or tiredness. Wigan will fancy their
chances of putting a run together to make the play-offs, although they might
have to settle for a draw at the Madjeski. 1-1.
Sheff Wed vs. Bournemouth
Sheffield Wednesday were
fortunate in their win over Watford last week. The Owls scored with their only
shot on target, and had just 40% possession, but caretaker manager Stuart Gray
will not mind about that. It was a crucial win, and one which takes them to a point
off safety with a game in hand, after their match at Wigan was abandoned. They
face a Bournemouth side who have only won once in their last nine, and failed
to follow up their shock win at Reading, after home defeat to Birmingham. As
seems to be the story for many teams last weekend, Bournemouth had a lot of
ball but were not clinical enough. They are in danger of getting drawn into
relegation trouble. 2-1.
Yeovil vs. Blackburn
Yeovil are now unbeaten in four,
and are showing that they can compete at this level, having looked like relegation
bankers in the first few months. That is credit to the job Gary Johnson has
done, as his loan signings have freshened the squad. However, avoiding the drop
remains a massive challenge for the Glovers. Blackburn won 3-2 at home to
Millwall last week, with Jordan Rhodes scoring his second goal in three, after
a bit of a dry spell. Given Blackburn’s financial situation, the Scotsman’s
sale in January looks almost inevitable, and a few goals over this Christmas
period will boost his price tag. Blackburn have a particularly poor away
record, so this is an opportunity for Yeovil to take three points, and unsettle
those above them. 2-1.
Millwall vs. Middlesbrough