Manchester City vs. Arsenal
Manchester City and Arsenal share the distinction of being the team all group winners want to avoid in Monday's Champions League draw, but domestic matters take precedence on Saturday, as fourth takes on first in a mouthwatering clash to begin the Premier League weekend.
City come into the game having the best home record in the league with an extra layer of confidence garnered on the back of a tremendous comeback victory away at Bayern Munich on Tuesday. Sergio Aguero and Alvaro Negredo have developed a fantastic understanding together and have deservedly earned their reputation as the most feared strike duo in the league, especially at the Etihad. However, Manuel Pellegrini will take a huge risk starting the two in tandem against Arsenal's midfield strength. With David Silva also back in the frame after recovering from injury, City are likely to start Aguero on his own up front, while James Milner's efficiency and work rate can also make a significant difference against Arsenal's possession oriented midfielders.
Arsenal could have come into the fixture with an eight-point lead over City and seven clear of the chasing pack, but Everton denied Arsene Wenger's men a victory at the Emirates last weekend, resulting in the Gunners come into the game with a fair amount of pressure. Many critics have waited to label Arsenal as title favourites pending their results in this fixture and next weekend's home game against Chelsea. If Arsenal can navigate these two matches without defeat, it could set the tone for their season. Wenger will rely on his fantastic variety of midfielders to maintain their impressive form, while the manager has also hinted at possibly including Theo Walcott from the start, though such a move could hinder Arsenal's midfield fluency.
Prediction: If this match was played on paper, I would give the edge to Arsenal because they have the superior midfield. However, Arsene Wenger has history in making strategic blunders in big games, such as playing Aaron Ramsey on the right at Old Trafford only a month ago. Furthermore, questions about Arsenal's mental strength will only increase after their close escape against Napoli in midweek, and with City buoyant and confident at home, I see Pellegrini getting a close yet significant victory over Wenger.
Cardiff City vs. West Bromwich Albion
I am tempted to call this the Peter Odemwingie derby, but a more accurate description would be a matchup between two of the most off-form teams in the league. Despite their current position in the league table, I believe West Brom will be fine come the end of the season, as their array of attacking talent will ensure goals and subsequently enough wins to stay well clear of the relegation zone. The Bluebirds on the other hand have a lot to worry about, notwithstanding the terrible off-field shenanigans surrounding the club. Cardiff have at least been extremely difficult to beat at home, and as dangerous as the Baggies can be, Malky Mackay has to inspire the same spirit that has seen some great results at the Cardiff City Stadium against the bigger clubs in the league.
Prediction: I expect a very tense game with few clearcut opportunities resulting in a stalemate.
Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace
A month ago if someone told me that one team was coming into this fixture on the back of two consecutive victories, and the other a careless defeat, I would talk about Jose Mourinho's Chelsea winning with metronomic precision, and Crystal Palace spiralling towards the relegation trapdoor. In stead the appointment of Tony Pulis has galvanized the Eagles, who have won two consecutive games against West Ham and Cardiff. Chelsea on the other hand have conceded six goals in their last two league fixtures, and Mourinho has been left frustrated by his defence. Much has been said about Chelsea's strikers, but when your midfielders have been chipping in with a regular supply of goals, its clear that scoring hasn't been the issue. It's the 17 goals conceded that is uncharacteristic of a defence managed by Mourinho. The Blues should not have too many issues with Crystal Palace's offence despite improved performances by Cameron Jerome, Marouane Chamakh and Barry Bannan under Pulis.
Prediction: I predicted Palace's two victories at home to kickstart Pulis' reign, but a visit to Stamford Bridge is another proposition altogether. Chelsea to win comfortably and set up their crucial visit to the Emirates Stadium next week.
Everton vs. Fulham
Roberto Martinez has made Everton one of the most attractive teams to watch in the league this season. The increased emphasis on ball retention in midfield has made the Toffees easy on the eye, and the continuous use of young exciting talent such as Ross Barkley, Romelu Lukaku and Gerard Deulofeu only further adds to the new manager's credence. Some fans are suggesting Bryan Oviedo is even better than Leighton Baines, and while I think it is too soon to make that judgement the Costa Rican international is another player who has got Goodison Park buzzing.
Fulham are clearly showing signs of improvement under Rene Meulensteen, following up an unfortunate defeat against Spurs with a deserved and dominant victory over Aston Villa at Craven Cottage. The whole team is playing with greater tenacity, and while a lot has been said about the average age of the Fulham squad, it at least ensures the Cottagers have players of experience who have the tactical discipline required to adjust to Meulensteen's new ideas and plans. Most importantly, Dimitar Berbatov is finally showing signs of being in peak form for Fulham this season
Prediction: Everton simply don't lose at Goodison Park, and have the greater firepower that should ideally be enough to overcome Fulham. However, I have the sneaky feeling that after picking four points from back-to-back away trips to Manchester United and Arsenal, Everton might just be a little complacent on returning home, resulting in two dropped points against a dogged Fulham defence.
Newcastle United vs. Southampton
Outside of the two top six fixtures that bookend the weekend, this matchup poses the greatest intrigue. Newcastle come into the fixture on the back of five wins out of six, and most impressively their first win at Old Trafford in 41 years last weekend. Southampton put in an equally impressive against the other half of Manchester, and could feel hard done by for getting only the point. It's going to be an interesting clash between two teams who have become extremely comfortable in clearly defined systems, with a nice sprinkling of individual talent in Yohan Cabaye, Loic Remy, Dani Osvaldo, Rickie Lambert and others to make this one of the must watch matches of the weekend.
Prediction: Alan Pardew has been getting a lot of credit for his tactical flexibility against different opponents, however I believe Newcastle don't have the personnel to necessarily cope with Mauricio Pochettino's pressing game. After a run of four games without a win, I believe Southampton are due a victory, and this one of those funny fixtures, where I believe the Saints will end their losing streak away from home at the expense of Newcastle's winning streak with an exciting win.
West Ham United vs. Sunderland
This game has all the ingredients of being a stinker considering the form that both teams are in. West Ham simply don't know where the next goal is going to come from, while Sunderland simply don't know how to stop conceding goals. Another one of those tense fixtures that become a feature in the latter half of the season as the relegation picture becomes clearer. It looks like the classic game that will be decided by either a moment of brilliance or a defensive error.
Prediction: Sunderland couldn't have realistically expected anything from successive games against Chelsea and Tottenham, but Gus Poyet's men are already cut adrift and badly need a win. Sam Allardyce is an expert at winning relegation six-pointers, however there isn't enough attacking quality for either side to get the win in this game. I am going for a draw.
Hull City vs. Stoke City
A game between two former students of Sir Alex Ferguson, as Steve Bruce's Hull
While Bruce has been getting a lot of positive press, Mark Hughes' men have quietly snuck up to just a point behind Hull. Last weekend's shock win against Chelsea should be the ideal platform for the Potters to kickstart Hughes' tenure at Stoke. Stephen Ireland has shown glimpses of his class, and the team certainly does look more potent up front when the Irish maverick makes his smart runs into the box. Whether Stoke are genuinely more attacking is still questionable, but as long as the players continue to perform, Hughes will be safe from scrutiny.
Prediction: Hull have been magnificent at the KC Stadium, while Stoke have generally been poor away from home. Still, I expect Stoke to enter this game with confidence and leave with a well-earned point.
Aston Villa vs. Manchester United
I remember the corresponding game from last season, when United came back to win 3-2 after Aston Villa played some of their best football under Paul Lambert in the first half. Unfortunately despite a positive pre-season, Villa have regressed to playing a very unimaginative style of football. They have managed to secure some impressive results away from home due to their blistering pace on the counter, but their home form has been atrocious, as they simply haven't managed to dictate play from midfield.
Manchester United have their own midfield problems, and to add to David Moyes' woes, Robin Van Persie is now ruled out for a month. United haven't won for a month in the league now, and a visit to one of their favourite venues could be the ideal tonic to kickstart an easy Christmas schedule. The Red Devils have no option but to capitalize on their run of fixtures starting this weekend, or they are going to be involved in an uphill struggle to qualify for the Champions League.
Verdict: Aston Villa have been extremely poor at home other than a shock win over Man City. Even Tom Cleverly and Phil Jones should manage to exercise control against Villa's midfield, while Wayne Rooney's return to the starting eleven should compensate for RVP's absence at least in this match, as United get the much needed win.
Norwich City vs. Swansea City
Rather surprisingly, Norwich come into this fixture with better form than Swansea. Chris Hughton's men won an invaluable three points at the Hawthorns, as Leroy Fer put in another outstanding display last weekend. With Gary Hooper also finding his feet, Norwich are developing some breathing space, especially on the basis of some good form at Carrow Road.
Swansea qualifying for the last 32 of the Europa League is an achievement that merits more attention, but the fact that they didn't win any of their last four matches in the group, meant that their progress was unfortunately overlooked. Getting four points from games against Newcastle and Hull without a striker was a decent haul for the Swans, but they might struggle on their travels until Michu and Bony return to the playing eleven.
Prediction: I think Norwich will maintain their good form at Carrow Road. Throw into the mix that the Canaries have become a bogey team for the Swans, and I can't see past a home victory.
Tottenham Hotspur vs. Liverpool
Sixth versus second in a battle between two managers who worked under Jose Mourinho. Since the 6-0 shellacking at the hands of Manchester City, Andre Villas-Boas' team have responded by taking seven points from nine, including two consecutive wins at Fulham and Sunderland coming back from a goal behind. While the win at Fulham owed a lot to speculative shots outside the box in a game where they were completely outplayed, the performance at the Stadium of Light was deserving of a more convincing scoreline. Jermain Defoe should have had a hat rick, Aaron Lennon excelled on the right and the duo of Lewis Holtby and Moussa Dembele provided incision from the centre of the park for the first time in a while for Spurs. Whether they consistently create chances against opponents of higher calibre is the million dollar question.
Only Manchester City have scored more goals than Liverpool, who managed nine in their last two matches on the back of Luis Suarez's brilliance. Liverpool haven't felt the adverse effects of Daniel Sturridge's absence at Anfield, but away from home it's a different story. While the attack has been firing, the defence is a major source of concern for Brendan Rodgers. There has been too much changing and chopping especially amongst the centre backs, which has resulted in the concession of some horribly soft goals. To compound the difficulties for Liverpool, captain Steven Gerrard has also been ruled out for a month. In theory, a partnership of Joe Allen and Lucas Leiva provides a solid base for the midfield, but relying on Jordan Henderson to provide the attacking thrust from the centre is simply asking too much of the Englishman, who for my money is still unproven at Liverpool despite playing every minute of Liverpool's season so far. It may sound like a broken record, but it seems apparent that for Liverpool to win this match, Suarez will have to perform some magic again.
Prediction: Tottenham have a great record against Liverpool at White Hart Lane, and should manage to control the midfield as they have the better technicians. Whether Spurs will create clear cut opportunities is questionable and with Spurs not having the fastest centre backs in the league, Philippe Coutinho and Luis Suarez will fancy their chances of creating and scoring goals. I am going out on a limb by suggesting a smash and grab win for Liverpool.
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