Thursday, 16 January 2014

Gabriel's Weekend Predictions: Gameweek Twenty-Six

Premier League

The weekend’s big Premier League game comes on Sunday afternoon. A Chelsea team chasing the title, play a Man United side looking to restore pride in their season. There are a number of what you’d expect to be easy money bets as well. Manchester City and Liverpool look to continue their unstoppable home form against Cardiff and Aston Villa respectively, while league leaders Arsenal host a Fulham side recovering from a 4-1 loss to Sunderland. The Black Cats play Southampton, who have their first game without Nicola Cortese as chairman, Pepe Mel has his first game in charge of West Brom against Everton, and a match between West Ham and Newcastle sees Allardyce and Pardew face their former clubs.

Sunderland vs. Southampton
Nicola Cortese has stepped down as Southampton chairman, without offering much of an explanation. Mauricio Pochettino has recently said in a press conference that he still intends to stay, but you do now wonder how longer his tenure is going to last, and this process could unsettle the players. Sunderland are showing great promise of survival after a 4-1 win away to Fulham, with Adam Johnson netting a hat-trick. They only had 41% possession, but were a lot more clinical, which is a massive positive for Gus Poyet. After a confidence boosting result like that, Sunderland will have their tails up, whereas the uncertainty regarding Southampton’s future won't help them on the pitch. 2-1.

Arsenal vs. Fulham
Fulham went some way to erase the aforementioned 4-1 defeat from memory, when they thrashed Norwich 3-0 in the FA Cup midweek. Their problems are clearly in defence, having conceded forty-six goals this season, eleven more than any other team. They have recalled centre-back Dan Burn from Birmingham, who played in the match against Norwich. He could be given some game time instead of ex-Gunner Phillippe Senderos, who has looked suspect in recent weeks. Arsenal hung on for a 2-1 win at Aston Villa on Monday, as they stayed top of the table despite a late surge from Villa. A long injury list does not make things ideal for the Gunners, but the final ten minutes should be more comfortable in this match than the one on Monday night. 2-0.

Crystal Palace vs. Stoke
Tony Pulis faces his old club, in the first of two home games against midtable opposition. His side put in a spirited first half performance against Tottenham, but failed to test Hugo Lloris. Scoring goals has been Palace’s main problem since the start of the season. They could have better luck against a Stoke side who have conceded fourteen goals, in the four league games they have had to play without the injured Asmir Begovic. The Potters were beaten 5-3 by Liverpool, with Jack Butland struggling on his Premier League debut, although Thomas Sorensen might return for this match. 1-1.

Man City vs. Cardiff
The Etihad
Calling a Manchester City home game this season, is becoming more about guessing the extent to which City win, rather than whether or not they will. The Citizens still have a 100% home record. That looks unlikely to change, if 6-0 and 5-0 cup home wins over West Ham and Blackburn respectively, are anything to go by. Cardiff lost 2-0 to West Ham in Solskjaer’s first league game, despite 63% possession and nineteen shots. They could have probably done with the Norwegian on the pitch, rather than in the dugout. Man City are averaging almost four goals per home game, and Cardiff’s relegation battle could come down to goal difference, so this may be a damage limitation job for the visitors. 3-0.

Norwich vs. Hull
Norwich are in poor form, without a win in eight in all competitions. They are still just three points above the drop zone, with Chris Hughton’s job recently coming under scrutiny. Last season, the team was looking very well organized but this time around there seems to be less structure to the defence. Perhaps they could take a leaf out of Hull’s book. Outside the top seven, only Southampton have conceded less goals than the Tigers, who have benefitted from the signing of Curtis Davies this summer. Steve Bruce has delved into the transfer market again, this time to sign Nikica Jelavic from Everton, for a reported £6.5 million. Jelavic has not produced a consistent goal threat since his first few months at Goodison Park, when he signed in January 2012, so this could be better business for Everton long-term. With Norwich struggling for confidence though, Hull might be able to pick up a rare away win. 0-1.

West Ham vs. Newcastle
A classic-Allardyce, defensive performance of rear-guard action saw West Ham take a 2-0 win at Cardiff last week. The one negative from that match was the sending off of James Tomkins, on his first start after injury, and his suspension will not help matters. Their back line could struggle against Newcastle, even if the Magpies have lost their last four matches. Pardew’s side have a few players of real quality, in Loic Remy, Yohan Cabaye and Hatem Ben Arfa, who are all capable of producing a piece of magic. A share of the spoils is on the cards as both managers face their former club. 1-1.

Liverpool vs. Aston Villa
The award for most bizarre January signing this season, goes to Grant Holt of Aston Villa. He has scored only two goals for Wigan in the Championship, his gangling stature will not suit Villa’s quick-paced, counter-attacking style of play, and they were hardly short of a target man. They have tall forwards Benteke, Kozak and Helenius in their squad, so you cannot understand the rationale behind that loan signing. Liverpool are almost as good a bet at home as Manchester City, having failed to win at Anfield only once this season. Luis Suarez up against an inexperienced Aston Villa defence, should make for a very comfortable afternoon for the Reds. 3-0.

Swansea vs. Tottenham
Swansea have still not won in the league since early December. A lack of energy and guile in the final third can be the only explanation for this, for a side who have had the most possession against Man City, Man United and Chelsea in recent weeks. Tottenham have taken a more gung-ho approach under Tim Sherwood, and so far it is reaping the rewards, with four league wins from his first five. His arrival seems to have brought the best out of Christian Eriksen, who has scored three goals in those five games. He has relished playing on the left of midfield, and cutting inside unchartered. It is difficult to see past another win for Spurs.

Chelsea vs. Man Utd
Two defensive minded managers. Jose’s Chelsea have kept six clean sheets from their previous seven, after they won at the KC last time out. It was a patient performance, in terms of the way they broke Hull down, with Eden Hazard continuing to be Chelsea’s best performer. Yet the Belgian is far from their only attacking threat, as the Blues have so much quality in the advanced midfield areas. If he’s fit, Phil Jones might play in midfield and be asked to stay tight to Hazard, but then you’ve got to think about Oscar and Willian, who have both shown they can produce pieces of brilliance. David Moyes will be desperate to avoid defeat, after victory over Swansea ended a run of three consecutive losses. The reverse fixture back in August was a very dull affair, and ended in a goalless draw. This could be a similarly disappointing game, but Chelsea are the more likely to win it. 1-0.

West Brom vs. Everton
Pepe Mel
Pepe Mel has his first game in charge of West Brom, in his first job outside Spain from his entire footballing career. The long-term impact he will have on West Brom is very much an unknown, but in the short-term, a new manager coming in normally produces an improvement in results. If there is one Spanish manager he will aspire to, it is Roberto Martinez, who continues to thrive at Everton. The Toffees took a routine 2-0 win over Norwich last time out, their fifth victory in seven matches. This game sees two teams who have drawn more games than anyone else in the Premier League, so a point apiece is the logical forecast. 1-1.

The Championship

Sheffield Wednesday will aim to build on their recent thrashing of Leeds by being the first team to win at Turf Moor this season, while Burnley’s promotion rivals Leicester and QPR, play mid-table outfits Leeds and Huddersfield. Two teams in poor form go head-to-head, as Barnsley host Blackpool, there’s a clash of play-off hopefuls as Derby take on Brighton, as Ian Holloway sits in the Millwall dugout for the first time, his new side take on away specialists Ipswich.

Leeds vs. Leicester
Leeds, who have lost their last four, play a Leicester side who have won their last five and seem to be pulling away at the top. Going on form, it’s a no-brainer away win, yet this Championship can make a fool out of anyone. It was not too long ago that Leeds strung together six straight home wins. They have shown they can make Elland Road a fortress, while you can never rule out Ross McCormack, who remains the league’s top scorer. The problem with Leicester could be complacency. After beating promotion rivals Derby 4-1 with such a strong performance, there may be a tendency to switch off. The Foxes are a counterattacking team, but they will not get too many opportunities to do that against the Whites, who try to pack the midfield. After the 6-0 humiliation at Sheffield Wednesday last week, Leeds have got to put in a performance for their fans. This might just be it. 1-0.

Barnsley vs. Blackpool
It is unlikely that team morale will be much lower than in these two camps at the moment, as Barnsley and Blackpool have gone a combined total of sixteen games without a win. Barnsley are bottom of the Championship, five points adrift of safety, and were recently knocked out of the FA Cup by League One Coventry. Over a nine game period, no team in the Football League is in worse form than Blackpool, the Tangerines have taken just one point since the end of November. It potentially makes for a game lacking in passion, vitality and spark, with a goalless draw seeming plausible. If you’re a fan of either of these clubs, you have my sympathy. 0-0.

Birmingham vs. Yeovil
Birmingham’s ten game unbeaten run came to an end at Brighton last week. A key part of that run was the centre-back partnership of Dan Burn and Kyle Bartley, but Bartley is currently injured, while Dan Burn may not return on loan from Fulham, having impressed for them in the cup. Yeovil went down to a fourth straight league defeat at home to Burnley last week, and they are struggling desperately to score goals. The strikers currently contracted to Yeovil have produced a combined total of just two goals since the start of the season. One of those came from an aging James Hayter, suffering from fitness problems, and one of them from Keiffer Moore, who has not yet started for the Glovers. This is a better opportunity than Birmingham will ever get to take three points at home, for the first time since October 1st. 2-0.

Bournemouth vs. Watford
After these teams met at Vicarage Road back in August, few would have guessed that they would be just one place apart at this stage. Watford won 6-1 thanks to a hat-trick from Troy Deeney, in a flurry of second half goals, as the Hornets seemed set to repeat their promotion challenge under Zola. On the other hand, Bournemouth’s defensive naivety made them look in for a relegation battle, in their first season in the Championship. Neither has happened. Watford changed their manager after a long, poor run of form, while Bournemouth have now lost just two of their last eight in all competitions, and are nine points from the drop. The Cherries face losing top scorer Lewis Grabban to Brighton though, which puts the pressure on Tokelo Rantie to start firing, after his big money move this summer. 1-1.

Burnley vs. Sheff Wed
Back-to-back league wins keeps Burnley on top in the promotion race. Danny Ings’s wonderful season continues with four goals in his last three, amid reported interest from Liverpool. Strangely, Burnley have not won a game by more than one goal since the end of October, which is a testament to how well their defence has done under pressure. It will come under pressure again, when faced with a Sheffield Wednesday side who thrashed rivals Leeds 6-0 the week before, and are in sumptuous form. The Owls might only be nineteenth on paper, but they are looking like a completely different team under Stuart Gray. 1-1.

Derby vs. Brighton
Although Derby have a five point lead over Brighton, the timing and location of this match falls in favour of the visitors. The Seagulls have lost just one of their last eight, while Derby have lost their last three after a 4-1 defeat to Leicester. Furthermore, Brighton have taken more points on the road this season than Derby have at home. Oscar Garcia’s side have won three of their last four matches 1-0, but they are looking to bolster their strikeforce by signing Lewis Grabban from Bournemouth, after Ashley Barnes left for Turf Moor. This will be a testing encounter for the Rams, who need a win to stay in touch with the automatic promotion race. 1-1.

Doncaster vs. Wigan
Doncaster fell to a seventh defeat in eight after a 1-0 loss at Blackburn last week, and Paul Dickov needs to turn their fortunes around swiftly. They have had a total of just twenty shots on target from those eight league games since the win over QPR, despite having had a lot of possession, particularly in the games against Leeds, Ipswich and Millwall. The answer could be that they need to be more creative going forward. It will be difficult to do so against Wigan, who have one of the best defensive records in the league and are now unbeaten in eight. The Latics have taken Nicky Maynard on loan from Cardiff to improve their attacking options, and given Doncaster’s woeful form, they will be feeling confident of an away win. 0-2.

Middlesbrough vs. Charlton
Middlesbrough are one of the Championship’s form teams, having won four of their last five games, and keeping a clean sheet in each of those victories. Without having much possession generally, they are becoming a well-drilled side under Aitor Karanka, while often posing a threat from long range. Charlton have drawn five of their last seven in all forms, and their blushes were somewhat spared in the FA Cup against Oxford, coming from two goals down to force a replay. No team outside the drop zone has scored less goals than Charlton, with top scorer Yann Kermorgant having been somewhat inconsistent in recent weeks. Boro could be onto another clean sheet, as they look to climb into the top half for the first time this season. Play-off contenders? 2-0.

Millwall vs. Ipswich
Ian Holloway takes to the Millwall dugout for the first time, and has a full squad to choose from, with no injury concerns. He is looking to bring in 22-year-old defender Jazz Richards on loan from Swansea, which could be a wise move. In the Football League, only Crewe Alexandra have conceded more goals than the Lions, who are suffering from a concerning lack of pace at the back. Ipswich’s away form has been impressive. Regarding games on their travels, they have not lost since September and have conceded just four from their last six, as Mick McCarthy’s rigid setup has paid off. In some ways, attacking fullback Aaron Cresswell has picked the perfect time to have a dip in form. He has only assisted once in his last nine, but the silver lining of that is he has since had no interest from Premier League clubs this January. 1-1.

Nottm Forest vs. Blackburn
Nottingham Forest’s home record had been their main problem during the first half of the season. Since Christmas Day though, they have won three straight games at the City Ground, including a 5-0 win over West Ham in the cup. Jamie Paterson scored a hat-trick in that match, and netted again at Bolton in the league, which suggests he might fulfil Forest’s need for a striker. Blackburn kept Manchester City down to a relatively modest 5-0 victory on Wednesday night. That result provides no reflection on Blackburn at all, over the two games, they matched one of the best squads in the world for a hundred and thirty-five minutes. Still, they spent a lot of time chasing the ball in the second half of that match, which is a factor that could work against them on Saturday. 2-1.

QPR vs. Huddersfield
QPR’s 3-1 win at Ipswich was a vital one. With Burnley winning, they could easily have fallen behind in the promotion race, but a clinical second half performance gave them three points. That was just the second time QPR have scored more than two goals in a game this season, which seems ridiculous considering how much they have spent. Harry Redknapp will be asking for more of the same, against a Huddersfield side who have only won twice away from home since August. New signing Nahki Wells made the perfect impact on his debut last week, coming off the bench to net a last minute winner against Millwall. That is just the start he will have wanted, after questions as to whether he can handle the step up to Championship level, with a burden of expectation. Still, QPR should grind out a tenth home win of the season. 2-1.

Reading vs. Bolton

A 1-0 win at Watford keeps Reading just one point off the play-off places, despite a recent sequence of defeats. In similar circumstances to their win at Huddersfield in December, they did not have much possession, but sat deep and forced their opponents into long range efforts. Though not the most attractive method, that has often proved to be a good way of picking up away points in this league. Bolton have shown they can play well on the road themselves, with a respectable four away wins since the start of October. However, top scorer Jermaine Beckford got the important goal in three of those games, and he faces a three week injury. Beckford aside, Bolton’s strikers have an unconvincing total of four goals between them. Reading will be feeling confident of taking back-to-back wins for just the second time since September. 2-0.

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