After Boxing Day laid waste to many predictions including those from yours truly, the holiday programme of the Premier League rolls on with the next set of weekend fixtures already upon us. This weekend marks the halfway point of the season as all teams will have played 19 games, and after some important away wins at both ends of the table on Boxing Day, I try and predict another crucial round of games in the Premier League.
West Ham United vs. West Bromwich Albion
A match between two teams who are both at the bottom of the alphabetical order of teams in the league as well as being bottom of the form table. West Ham gave Arsenal a run for their money on Boxing Day, before eventually losing 3-1. The Hammers haven't been able to get the wins at home recently, but now that they are in the relegation zone, they have no choice but to win games against fellow strugglers at Upton Park. West Bromwich have completely fallen off the rails after some impressive performances against the country's best teams, but despite not having a manager they were able to get an impressive point at White Hart Lane on Boxing Day. I think Sam Allardyce can take solace in the fact that not every attack is as potent as the Gunners, and their fine defensive record at home will see them get a tense win over the Baggies.
Aston Villa vs. Swansea City
I have to admit my surprise at Aston Villa being so poor in Paul Lambert's second season in charge. Villa's struggles have not been noticed by many, but that is mainly due to the fact that there are so many poor teams in the division. However, the Villains are only three points above Crystal Palace and Fulham, with each display getting progressively worse. Villa Park seems to be the best place to visit in the league right now, and I have a feeling Swansea will take the opportunity to get their first win in five games at the expense of Aston Villa. The Swans are due a good result, and I expect them to gain the three points on the back of their midfield dominating the centre of Villa Park.
Hull City vs. Fulham
Under regular circumstances, I would pick Hull to get a regulation win at home against one of the weaker away teams in the league. However, in this crowded holiday period momentum matters most to teams in the lower half of the table, as they simply don't have the depth to recover in time. The Tigers must be deflated after losing to Manchester United despite being 2-0 up at home, while the cottagers will be full of confidence after a fantastic comeback victory away to Norwich. With just two days between the matches, I expect Fulham to carry their momentum forward and get three points at a subdued KC Stadium.
Manchester City vs. Crystal Palace
Manchester City came through their toughest home test of the season so far, with a tough 2-1 win over Liverpool. It will certainly delight Manuel Pellegrini that City won that crucial fixture despite being outplayed for waste swathes of the game, and in many aspects it was an even better victory than the thrashings they have regularly handed out to visitors at the Eithad this season. It's vital that City follow up Wednesday's win with a routine three points against Tony Pulis' improved Crystal Palace. The Eagles will be buoyed at not being in the relegation zone for the first time this season after a splendid away win at Villa Park. Palace have already gained three points they didn't budget for during the holiday schedule, and hence will not be too disheartened at leaving the Etihad without any points against City's juggernaut.
Norwich City vs. Manchester United
After a fine run of form, Norwich suffered a shock loss at home to Fulham. Gary Hooper did get another goal, but losing to Scott Parker's late wonder goal will have brought morale down at Carrow Road. Conversely, Manchester United will be in great spirits after their comeback at Hull, and will be confident of getting another three points against Norwich. The Canaries have troubled the Red Devils in this fixture including getting a great win last season. United also have some injury problems at the back to contend with, but their attacking options should enable them to get another tough win on the road.
Cardiff City vs. Sunderland
Cardiff are all over the place at the moment, and thankfully the fiasco between Vincent Tan and Malky Mackay came to an end on Friday with the sacking of the manager. The Bluebirds are not playing with any joy as was witnessed in their shellacking at home to Southampton. Sunderland on the other hand will have regained belief in escaping relegation after a monumental away win against Everton. Remarkably Gus Poyet's men have now been unbeaten on the road in December, and is in the case of Fulham should be able to carry the winning momentum against a rudderless Cardiff in this relegation six-pointer.
Everton vs. Southampton
Everton missed a golden opportunity to get into 4th place after a shock 1-0 defeat at home to Sunderland. To give Roberto Martinez's men their fair share of credit, they created chance after chance despite being a man down for almost 70 minutes. These are the kind of results that differentiate true contenders from the best of the rest, and despite the Toffees impressive first half of the season, they are not quite the finished product. It will be hard to rebound psychologically after such a defeat, and to make matters worse the Saints will be arriving on the back of their first win since the international break. I believe this will actually be a good game between two managers who have the right footballing philosophy, but I also think two excellent midfields will cancel each other out in a draw.
Newcastle United vs. Arsenal
Newcastle come into this game on the back of their two biggest wins of the season. However, Stoke's remarkable unravelling overshadowed the fact that the Magpies were being completely outplayed on their own patch for the majority of the first half. Yohan Cabaye will be crucial to the Magpies hopes, but the Frenchman cannot contend against Arsenal's variety in midfield on his own. I mentioned before the last round that despite a rough set of results recently, the Gunners are still on top, and with Theo Walcott and Lukas Podolski contributing on their returns of injury, Arsenal should be able to start another winning run. As long as Arsenal maintain their focus defensively, they should become the second team to depart St. James Park with three points this season on the back of their creative and technical superiority to Newcastle.
Chelsea vs. Liverpool
One has to go back to Jose Mourinho and Rafa Benitez's early years in England, since Liverpool played Chelsea with so much at stake. Mourinho is back in charge at Stamford Bridge, while the Reds have a different manager who is beginning to make fans believe again. Chelsea's problems in attack were highlighted with another 1-0 victory against Swansea that was too close for comfort. Liverpool were extremely unfortunate to lose against Manchester City last time around, and the key will be how Rodgers gets his players motivated for a second successive big game on the road. With Ramires being suspended for the Blues, Liverpool could have joy in the midfield battle and create chances despite Chelsea's record at home. However, lost in the aftermath of the good performance at the Etihad was another uncertain and chaotic display by the Reds defence. I can see Liverpool putting on another good away display, but with John Terry and Gary Cahill, I think Chelsea will win on the back of their set piece superiority.
Tottenham Hotspur vs. Stoke City
If anyone had delusions about Tim Sherwood's managerial appointment being the solution for Spurs after Andre Villas Boas' reign at White Hart Lane, the 1-1 draw against West Brom exposed a clear lack of tactical understanding by the new manager. Playing without either a midfield pivot or defensive midfielder is a reminder of the Premier League in the 90's, and with nuanced approaches and tactically sophisticated managers now dominating the upper echelons of the division, Sherwood will be found out sooner or later. For this game however, a dishevelled Stoke City should be seen off without too much discomfort, as Spurs finally get their first win at White Hart Lane in a while.