The most exciting period of football for Premier League fans gets underway with round 17, as all clubs play four games in a matter of ten days. The following are my predictions for the first set of fixtures.
Liverpool vs. Cardiff City
Liverpool come into the game on the back of their most impressive away result and the added bonus of Luis Suarez signing a new contract at Anfield. While the Reds appear to have their house very much in order, it is the complete opposite at Cardiff, where owner Vincent Tan has undermined manager Malky Mackay in every possible way leading up to the festive period. With Liverpool in tremendous form at Anfield, and Cardiff usually rotten away from home, I can't see anything other than a comfortable three points for the home team ahead of difficult away fixtures against Manchester City and Chelsea.
Crystal Palace vs. Newcastle United
Crystal Palace could consider themselves slightly unfortunate to not get a draw at Stamford Bridge last weekend, as the revival under Tony Pulis continues to gather steam. Newcastle could easily have lost at home to Southampton after a rotten second half performance last weekend. One gets the sense, that the Magpies are playing well due to the brilliance of some players rather than being tactically smart, and I can see Pulis leading the Eagles to another crucial win at home against a Newcastle team who might just have their eye off the ball in this fixture.
Fulham vs. Manchester City
Fulham were not as bad as the 4-1 scoreline in their defeat to Everton to Goodison Park last weekend might suggest. They made life difficult for the soaring Toffees in the second half, and were it not for some errors from Maarten Stekelenburg in goal, Fulham might have hung on for a crucial point. Their next opponents had all and sundry purring, after Manchester City's 6-3 win over Arsenal. However, I feel City are in for a battle against Rene Meulensteen's men, who have improved significantly at home under their manager. I think City might be surprised and the match will end up as a draw.
Manchester United vs. West Ham United
After losing Robin Van Persie to injury, the last thing David Moyes wanted was Wayne Rooney suffering an injury. Thankfully for the fans at Old Trafford, it's the abject Hammers who are visiting this weekend. Sam Allardyce might find some solace in the fact that Modibo Maiga finally scored in the League Cup victory over Spurs, and also because West Ham displayed great mental strength to come from behind and win at White Hart Lane. Despite their last two outings at the Theatre of Dreams resulting in losses, United should get their home form back on track with a comfortable win.
Stoke City vs. Aston Villa
A match between two very unpredictable teams, who have both mixed some extraordinary results with truly abject performances this season. After beating Chelsea at the Britannia last time out, Stoke should ideally be favourites, but that would discount Aston Villa's amazing propensity to score on the counter away from home. Stoke may play the better football (that's not a typo!), but Villa might sneak a win considering the Potters don't have the fastest set of defenders in the league.
Sunderland vs. Norwich City
I have backed Sunderland to get decent results in the last three rounds of predictions, and I think this is the fixture in which Gus Poyet's men will finally deliver. While many may say a run to the League Cup semis was the last thing the Mackems needed, I would argue that the quarterfinal victory over Chelsea will provide a tremendous fillip to the squad that should spur them on to close the gap in the relegation battle. Visitors don't come more generous than Norwich, and while Gary Hooper and Leroy Fer are both proving their quality with consistent performances for the Canaries, Sunderland will get the three points in a match they simply have to win.
West Bromwich Albion vs. Hull City
This match is certainly not going to be on the must see list for neutrals. Albion have struggled to score at home recently, while Hull have been terrible on the road. The Baggies certainly have the better attackers, but Steve Bruce knows how to set up a defence on the road, and with no manager at the Hawthorns after the sacking of Steve Clarke, I can see an attritional draw taking place.
Southampton vs. Tottenham Hotspur
Tim Sherwood starts his audition to be Tottenham's next manager with a tough assignment away to Mauricio Pochettino's Saints. Southampton could reasonably argue that they should have had six points from two tough matches against Manchester City and Newcastle. The problem is that in the past month or so they have had a bit too much 'reasonable arguing', and not enough winning. Spurs on the other hand are coming in to the fixture on the back of a chastening week at White Hart Lane, and while Sherwood might promise a more open style of play, I can see Southampton's pressing forwards make life hell for Tottenham's depleted defence, resulting in three points for the home team at St. Mary's.
Swansea City vs. Everton
This should actually be a tricky match on paper. However, the Swans are not playing with the swagger that has been associated with Michael Laudrup's men recently. The injury to Michu has been crucial, while losing Nathan Dyer to injury was another setback that Swansea could have done without. Everton have done extremely well against Swansea in the Premier League, and I expect Roberto Martinez's men to get the three points at their manager's former club and stay in the race for the Champions League spots.
Arsenal vs. Chelsea
Considering Chelsea's travails away from home, Arsene Wenger probably won't get a better opportunity to win against Jose Mourinho than Monday night's big game at the Emirates. It should follow that if Newcastle and Stoke can beat Chelsea at home, certainly a team of Arsenal's technical quality should dominate a home match against Blues. In stead, I am going to go with my gut and simply repeat what I said before the Gunners last match against City. While Arsenal have the superiority in midfield, Arsene Wenger will simply fail to rouse his troops for the big game against Chelsea, and Laurent Koscielny's absence will only further undermine the Frenchman's poor tactical acumen in comparison to his Portuguese rival. I see Chelsea getting the three points at the Emirates, even though Arsenal will probably play the 'better' football.