There are two big games this weekend. Liverpool want to clench their grip on fourth place, but to do so, they will have to beat table-toppers Arsenal. A bad result for the Reds would leave the door open for Tottenham or Everton to win their match on Sunday and apply the pressure, and would give Manchester United a shot at saving their season. Quite frankly, any match between two teams in the bottom half, of which there are three, can be classed as a ‘relegation six-pointer’, such is the unpredictability of this season. Here is my preview of the games.
Liverpool vs. Arsenal
Liverpool dropped two points at West Brom, after a mistake by Kolo Toure and a poor second half performance. That result is no disaster though, because they take the majority of their points at home. Add to that, Everton have got to play Chelsea and Tottenham in February, while Spurs themselves have seen their momentum come to a halt recently. As expected, Arsenal completely controlled their match against Crystal Palace, and won thanks to two goals from Oxlade-Chamberlain, who is returning to full fitness. Liverpool and Man United will provide two difficult opponents in the space of four days for the Gunners, and if they are still top of the league on Thursday morning, they will be very happy. However, with a player of Suarez’s aggression and world-class quality, Liverpool might just win this. 2-1.
|Andy Carroll - injured|
Aston Villa vs. West Ham
Two teams who have the lowest average possession percentage in the Premier League, aside from Crystal Palace. Aston Villa like to face up to against attacking teams who they can hit on the break, but West Ham tend to defend deep, particularly away from home. This is why it could be a stalemate. For a start, it will be difficult for West Ham going forward. Andy Carroll is key to them scoring goals, but is suspended for three games after a long-term injury, so it’s back to square one. He gets the best out of Jarvis and Downing’s crossing ability, and his knock-downs help Kevin Nolan when he breaks into the box, and without him the Hammers are not the same team. West Ham play with a cautious defensive line that should be able to cope with Villa’s pace. With two winnable home games coming up, Sam Allardyce will be content to simply not lose this, so it could be a dull game. 0-0.
Crystal Palace vs. West Brom
In their last six home games, Crystal Palace have picked up just one less point than Arsenal, and two less than Manchester City. They have been brilliant at Selhurst Park, and their fans were very supportive throughout their game at the Emirates. Palace supporters have sang for their team since the beginning of the season, even when they looked certainties for relegation, so they provide a good vocal backing. West Brom may settle for a point here, and they should be able to get it. As well as having two defensive midfielders, fullbacks Jones and Ridgewell are not too attack-minded. Conversely, Cardiff, Hull and Stoke’s fullbacks generally are, and that was where goals were created for Palace, who look to attack down the flanks. Much like Villa against West Ham, a bore draw is on the cards. 1-1.
Norwich vs. Man City
|Fernandinho - injured|
Norwich created a number of chances against Cardiff but ended up losing 2-1, and fell victim to the heroics of the opposing goalkeeper. They have had fifty-four shots in their last three games, yet have only scored twice, so they clearly need to start converting. Gary Hooper, who was in form up until New Year, has now not scored in 2014. Sergio Aguero and Fernandinho are two vital players for Man City. Against Chelsea, Aguero might have put away one of the two chances that fell to David Silva, who is not the best finisher. More importantly they missed Fernandinho, someone who is capable of doing the dirty work and breaking up attacks, because Demichellis is not that man. Javi Garcia is a doubt for this match as well, so Manuel Pellegrini has problems in central midfield, and more defensive responsibility will be placed on Yaya Toure. City may not have things all their own way at Carrow Road. 1-2.
Chelsea vs. Newcastle
A lot of people talked about Mourinho’s game plan coming off in the match against Man City, but you need to give credit to Chelsea’s players. They had to carry it off, and were very well organized, breaking at pace. Eden Hazard, in particular, had an excellent game and is arguably the best player in the Premier League at the moment. This is a good time to be playing Newcastle, too. Fan protests against chairman Mike Ashley have surfaced, in light of a 3-0 home loss to arch rivals Sunderland. They have no longer got Yohan Cabaye, who provided a controlling presence in midfield. Chelsea do not tend to blow teams out of the water, and once they get their second goal, Mourinho might start planning ahead for West Brom away on Tuesday night. 2-0.
Sunderland vs. Hull
Sunderland are averaging almost two points a game at the moment, and their remarkable surge up the table seems to be continuing, with a 3-0 win at Newcastle. They have added Liam Bridcutt from Brighton, who Gus Poyet used to work with, and that could give them a bit more protection in midfield. Hull have the joint-worst away record in the Premier League, and have only picked up points from three of their twelve games on the road. Sunderland like to play on the counter attack, and this is where they can get the better of Hull, who play three at the back. Whenever their wingbacks break forward, there is an opportunity for Sunderland to get the ball to the flanks quickly, and cause confusion for Hull’s centre-backs. Adam Johnson on that right side, could have another enjoyable afternoon. 3-1.
Southampton vs. Stoke
Southampton have not lost since defeat to Chelsea on New Years’ Day, and three clean sheets from their last five suggests the Saints are rediscovering their defensive class. A big factor in this improvement, is the recent return of goalkeeper Artur Boruc. At Fulham, the Pole made three vital saves in the first half to keep the game at 0-0, before Southampton’s quality shone through in the second period. Boruc will fancy his chances of keeping another clean sheet against Stoke. Although the Potters beat Manchester United at the Britannia, they have only scored one goal in their last six away games. A comfortable home win. 2-0.
Swansea vs. Cardiff
|Laudrup - sacked|
Why did Swansea sack Laudrup? This is the third time this season that a manager has been surprisingly sacked – i.e. Clarke and Villas-Boas - yet the funny thing is that none of the decisions were made by foreign, or untrustworthy chairmen. None of them fall into the ‘Vincent Tan’ mould. Huw Jenkins is a lifelong Swansea supporter, Jeremy Peace and Daniel Levy have been very shrewd chairmen for their respective clubs, yet both bowed down to the pressure of money and short-termism. Furthermore, it is difficult to see who Swansea will take to replace Laudrup, who will continue their philosophy of possession football. Cardiff beat Norwich last week, which makes this relegation dogfight very interesting. They could start to find some momentum under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and complete a double over their Welsh rivals. 1-2.
Tottenham vs. Everton
After falling behind at the KC Stadium, Tottenham did fairly well to grab a draw, against a Hull defence which can often prove stubborn at home. However, with Liverpool dropping points, it was arguably a missed opportunity to close the gap on fourth place. Spurs have only won five home games this season, and they host an Everton side who have only lost twice away, and will be buoyed by a dramatic win over Aston Villa. After losing 4-0 to Liverpool, and going 1-0 down at home to the Villa, the pressure was on Roberto Martinez, perhaps for the first time. He certainly responded. Everton continued to play confident, positive football, and his substitutes, Pienaar and Naismith, made the difference. A draw between two sides who might just miss out on fourth place to Liverpool. 1-1.
Man Utd vs. Fulham
|Time running out for Moyes?|
Seven points behind Liverpool, Manchester United are in grave danger of finishing outside the top four for the first time since 1991. To do so would be a disaster for the club, because they rely so heavily on the money from playing in the Champions League. At the moment they are having a pattern of win, lose, win, lose, win, lose, and you wonder how quickly David Moyes is actually learning to put things right. The club cannot afford to have six years of consolidation like they gave Ferguson, so this Moyes era could end in tears. Fulham will put up a fight. They will need to have an improved performance somewhere after a 3-0 home loss to Southampton, and an FA Cup exit at the hands of League One Sheffield United. The additions of Mitroglou, Holtby and Heitinga could give the Cottagers a much-needed boost. United will have just enough quality to scrape a win here, but with Arsenal away in midweek, this could be yet another case of one step forward, two steps back. 2-1.
The big game comes on Monday night. Derby play host to QPR, in a promotion battle involving the highest goalscorers and best defence in the Championship. A defeat for QPR would mean Burnley can go back into the top two, if they beat Millwall, who are struggling near the bottom. Leicester have a chance to get revenge on Watford for last season’s dramatic play-off final defeat, by getting a tenth straight win and moving a step closer to the Premier League. At the other end, there’s a relegation scrap between Charlton and Birmingham, both of whom have had problems regarding their ownership in recent weeks.
Yeovil vs. Leeds
See your manager be sacked, beat your local rivals 5-1 after going 1-0 down, end a run of eight games without a win, find out your manager had not been sacked after all, and protest against potential new owners. One thing is for sure - it won’t be dull being a Leeds fan right now. Arguably, the issue with McDermott has had the bizarre, unexpected impact of galvanizing the squad to play for their manager. If they put together a promotion push now, the past week could be looked upon as one divine turning point. Yeovil’s lack of experience is the main thing costing them. In matches against both Derby and Nottingham Forest, they were in strong positions to take something out of the game, but could not maintain their concentration. In his back line, Gary Johnson does not have any players who are proven at Championship level. 0-2.
Barnsley vs. Ipswich
|Frimpong - suspended|
Barnsley looked to have put in a good effort in their match at Sheffield Wednesday. They did well to deny their opponents any real chances, despite playing with a man disadvantage for much of the game, yet they can only blame themselves for that. Emmanuel Frimpong’s behaviour on the pitch was beyond daft. He had been warned, twice, before committing the reckless challenge that got him sent off. Barnsley could also do without the late three match suspension for Jacob Mellis, who is arguably their most creative player. Danny Wilson will need to re-think his midfield for the visit of Ipswich, a side who seem to be re-gathering their form, with seven points from their last three. In a tight game, Ipswich might have slightly more quality up front to nick a win. 0-1.
Blackpool vs. Nottm Forest
Barry Ferguson took his post-match interview after Blackpool’s 2-0 defeat at Blackburn, and he did not seem at home one bit, in his new role as manager. He looked almost on the verge of tears, and lacked any of the charisma needed to turn his sides’ fortunes around. Nottingham Forest’s new Algerian signing, Rafik Djebbour, scored on his debut in the win over Yeovil, after coming on as a late substitute. That is just the start he would have wanted, and Billy Davies can now begin to integrate him into the first team. Even better news for Forest, Jack Hobbs is making his stay permanent after signing from Hull, and thus far he has stepped in for the injured Kelvin Wilson brilliantly. With unenviable opponents in Burnley, Leicester and Wigan forthcoming, a match against out of form Blackpool is one they need to win. 0-3.
Bolton vs. Bournemouth
Much like Blackpool, Bolton are in poor form, recently got tonked at Reading, and their manager seems unable to do anything about it. Whenever Bolton lose this season, Dougie Freedman says things like “we were unlucky” and “I was pleased with the spirit and performance levels of the players”, yet those statements are wearing a bit thin. Things are looking brighter for their opponents, Bournemouth, who remain ten points above the drop zone, despite recent defeat to Leicester. In that particular match, perhaps they lacked a cutting edge going forward, with just one shot on target despite a majority in possession. Bournemouth have only won three away games, but Bolton have won just twice at home. 1-1.
Brighton vs. Doncaster
There might be a gap of ten places between these two teams, but this is by no means a predictable one. For a start, Brighton have not scored in any of their last three games. There must be problems regarding the confidence of striker Leandro Ulloa, as the Argentine has not netted since his brace on Boxing Day. Until January, they had Ashley Barnes for cover up front, but he left for Burnley. Oscar Garcia only has loanee Leroy Lita at his disposal, who he does not seem to favour - Lita has not yet started a match. It is not ideal to have goalscoring problems when you’re playing Doncaster at the moment, as Paul Dickov’s side are unbeaten in four games. In those matches, they have only conceded one goal, and their opponents had an average of under two shots on target per game, which says everything about their organisation right now. This could be a very frustrating day for the Seagulls. 0-1.
Burnley vs. Millwall
Burnley’s draw at QPR keeps the automatic promotion race interesting for now. If Burnley win this, they will go into second place due to a better goal difference, and that will put pressure on QPR for their trip to Derby on Monday night. Both Danny Ings and Sam Vokes scored in that match to keep their sensational season going, and they will fancy their chances against a Millwall back line with the worst ‘goals against’ record in the league. The Lions lost 3-0 at home to Reading on Saturday, and their defending in that match looked atrocious, with Danny Shittu particularly culpable. Millwall have the second worst away record in the Championship, and it does not look as though Ian Holloway will change that. 3-0.
Charlton vs. Birmingham
Charlton have lost their last three matches, and have not won since Boxing Day. At Wigan, they put in something of a backs to the wall performance, with just 32% possession. To concede two goals in the final few minutes after being 1-0 up for so long will be a sickening blow for Chris Powell’s men, and it could be difficult for their players to recover. Birmingham did the opposite last week. When they fell 3-1 behind, they never looked like salvaging anything from their match against Derby. Second half substitute Chris Burke made an impact, scoring with ten minutes to go, before debutant Federico Macheda got a last minute equalizer, after moving on loan from Manchester United. This could be a tight, nervy game at the Valley, between two sides with difficult times ahead. 1-1.
Huddersfield vs. Wigan
Huddersfield have lost their last four games, although their last three in the league were away from home, and picking up points on the road is not Huddersfield’s strong suit. That is not to say that this game, even with home advantage, will be much easier. Wigan are slowly climbing towards the play-off places. They do not seem to be affected by that 3-0 loss at Doncaster, which has proved to be an anomaly, because they have won two and drawn one since. They kept their belief against Charlton to score twice in the closing stages, so Uwe Rosler seems to have the Latics very well motivated. Wigan will get a fifth win in seven from their short trip to West Yorkshire. 1-2.
Leicester vs. Watford
Lightening doesn’t strike twice. In the play-off semi-final last season, Anthony Knockaert missed a penalty to secure Leicester’s place at Wembley, before Watford went up the other end and scored, to go through in dramatic circumstances. Now things have changed, and Leicester have the perfect opportunity to avenge that defeat, by completing a sweet double over them this time around. It is hard to see the Foxes, currently ten points clear at the top, not doing so. Their opponents are in the bottom half of the table, and look unlikely to put together a play-off push, yet they will not go down either. In terms of promotion and pride, Leicester will have by far the more incentive to win. 2-0.
Middlesbrough vs. Blackburn
Middlesbrough seem to have lost that momentum, which led many to suggest they might make a late charge for the play-offs, as the Teesside club have not scored for three games. Over those matches, they had a total of thirty-two shots, yet only five of them were on target, which suggests there may be flaws in Karanka’s plan of encouraging players to shoot from range. At the age of just twenty-two, Grant Hanley has been given the captain’s armband at Blackburn, now Scott Dann has left for Crystal Palace. Blackburn do not have too many players who are experienced, or have been in the first team for a long time - except the injury prone David Dunn - so you can understand Gary Bowyer’s decision. There is little to choose between these sides. 1-1.
Reading vs. Sheff Wed
|"Pavel Po- err.. that Russian fella"|
A meeting of two in-form teams. Reading have scored fifteen goals in their last four games, with forwards Pavel Pogrebnyak and Adam Le Fondre rediscovering their goalscoring nous. Reading’s home form dipped dramatically between October and New Year, but recent thrashings of Bolton and Blackpool at the Madejski, suggests they are putting that right. Sheffield Wednesday are unbeaten in ten, and thanks to a very well organised defence, look to be moving towards the comfort of lower midtable. Then again, every good run comes to an end. Stuart Gray might just get a bit of a reality check, and his side could be this year’s third casualty of a trip to Berkshire. 3-0.
Derby vs. QPR
For Derby, this is a ‘must-win game’, as far as automatic promotion is concerned. For QPR, it’s ‘must not lose’. A win for Derby would see them go just one point away from their Monday night opponents, having played one game more. In the likely case that Burnley beat Millwall on Saturday, QPR need to take something from this game to avoid handing them the initiative. The Rs go into this game without top scorer Charlie Austin, who could be out for the rest of the season. However, they scored three goals on Saturday, two of which came from debutant strikers Kevin Doyle and Modibo Maiga, so they may not miss Austin too much. Derby were involved in a 3-3 thriller themselves, conceding a late equalizer at Birmingham, though Patrick Bamford continued his successful start to his loan spell. This match sees the highest scorers in the Championship, play the side with the best defensive record, and it promises to be a fascinating contest. 2-1.