Liverpool v Norwich
Another weekend off football-based drama kicks off at Anfield as Norwich take a trip to Merseyside looking for their first league win in over a month. They face a Liverpool side showing signs of improved home form but not without issues. They snoozed through the first hour of their clash with Manchester United last week and found the game all but lost until arising from their slumbers and nearly clawing something from the game. As ever this season, Liverpool looked very much like a work in progress and often regardless of the result, their matches tend to throw open more questions than answers. Daniel Sturridge has brought a new dimension to their attack and is without doubt an improvement on their current squad but his arrival must not negate the threat of Suarez and deny the Uruguayan his opportunity to express his talent. Joe Allen is looking more like a talent vacuum as the weeks tick by. Neat and tidy footballers just don’t cut it at the very top level and at any level should not be costing teams a kings ransom as he did. He is currently making Jordan Henderson look like a bargain. Norwich will come to Anfield with the idea of frustrating and denying Liverpool space, but it’s hard to imagine them being able to do that for 90 minutes…
Prediction: Liverpool 3-0 Norwich
Fantasy player to start: Daniel Sturridge
Manchester City v Fulham
Roberto Mancini will have been plenty satisfied with what he saw from his team last week at Arsenal as they prepare to take on Fulham this Saturday. It was the type of performance which Mancini has built his City on, strong and disciplined at the back and a solid base to counter-attack from. It is clear that if they do give up their Premier League crown, it will not be on account of their lack of resilience and determination and will more likely be down to their lack of flexibility and flair. Mario Balotelli has more flair than a Brooklyn disco circa 1977 but he won’t get to demonstrate much of that from his position on the bench. Maybe he can set off some flares into the Manchester sky to remind his manager what he is capable of, although most of his pyrotechnic displays are saved for the safe environment of his own bathroom. David Silva has quietly started to regain some of the form which made him one of the players of last season, which has also been a welcome boost for Mancini. Fulham struggle on the road, City don’t lose at home to teams outside of Manchester…
Prediction: Manchester City 2-0 Fulham
Fantasy player to start: David Silva
Newcastle v Reading
Plenty of negative vibes surrounding Newcastle at present as they struggle to do business in the notoriously difficult January transfer window. The sale of Demba Ba to Chelsea has quite rightly prompted fans to expect a replacement which has so far not been forthcoming. The Newcastle brains trust must have though they had bagged their man when they agreed a fee for Loic Remy, only for Harry Redknapp to hi-jack the plane and single-handedly land it on a West London runway paved with gold. And Championship football. That, coupled with El Capitan Coloccini asking to leave, has only served to accentuate the tense mood around St James’ Park. Reading are yet to win on the road this season and only got three points last week by producing one of the best escapes since Steve McQueen decided he didn’t like Nazis. The first goal will be crucial in this game as it’s easy to imagine the crowd playing a key role. This has the potential to be a tense affair and Reading will be the happier of the two to settle for a point, not that they will have a choice…..
Prediction: Newcastle 2-1 Reading
Fantasy player to start: Papiss Cisse
Swansea v Stoke
A contrast of styles at the Liberty as tiki-taka takes on taekwondo. In all seriousness, both teams are not as extreme as the liberal media would have you believe. Swansea are not as brittle and lightweight as others assume while Stoke won’t necessarily burn down your village and steal your livestock. If you had to name your Manager of the Season at this point then Swansea supremo Michael Laudrup would have to be in with a shout, having guided his team to the top half of the table and the cusp of a Wembley final. As previously mentioned, he has made Swansea a more solid unit and therefore more dynamic in the process. They no longer have to rely upon their possession football and being able to control the tempo of a game. Defensive improvements have meant they are able to grind out results more effectively and pick up points and results along the way. One wonders if a top European job will come calling should Laudrup continue his level of success. Having said all that, Stoke will be smarting from their home defeat to Chelsea last week and Swansea may just have one eye on their upcoming cup tie….
Prediction: Swansea 1-2 Stoke
Fantasy player to start: Robert Huth
West Ham v QPR
Harry takes his QPR side across London to visit another of his former teams in the shape of West Ham. The trip should hold no fears for his squad having already grabbed three valuable points from Stamford Bridge this season and picking up a solid point at home to Spurs last week. They were under pressure for large parts of that game but ultimately stood firm, with Ryan Nelsen giving QPR fans another reminder of just how much his leadership and defensive qualities will be missed when he departs for pastures new. Attention switches to the other end of the field where Loic Remy will be relied upon to score the goals to keep QPR up. His goalscoring record doesn’t scream prolific goal machine but he is undoubtedly an improvement to their forward line and will surely benefit from being the main man at Rangers. West Ham have been patchy of late, with good performances not quite getting the right results and one wonders if their squad is just starting to be stretched to breaking point, especially at the back….
Prediction: West Ham 0-2 QPR
Fantasy man to start: Shaun Wright-Phillips
Wigan v Sunderland
Ivan Ramis has been ruled out for the season for Wigan and has been replaced in the Mariachi band by Albert Crusat. This is usually the time of the season Martinez finds a couple of January steals and his team starts to gel and become more cohesive, they have certainly been in far worse positions and stayed up than the one they currently find themselves in. Sunderland won nicely at home to West Ham last week but then crashed out of the FA Cup at the hands of Bolton which is effectively a microcosm of their season so far. One step forward followed by two steps back. I still feel they will do enough to keep their top flight status but much more than that is being too optimistic for my liking. This game may come down to who needs it more, Wigan have a tendency to create chances and miss them, Sunderland are more likely to take the limited chances they happen to create so this one has draw written all over it….
Prediction: Wigan 1-0 Sunderland
Fantasy player to start: James McCarthy
West Brom v Aston Villa
A Midlands derby rounds off the day and it should be a cracker. Romelu Lukaku turned into Beast Mode last week against Reading before his defensive colleagues turned into Least Mode and let in three late goals. Manager Steve Clarke looked about as angry as I would be if somebody got me a John Bishop Live DVD for my birthday. Lukaku meanwhile has all the physical attributes to be a massive success in this division and hopefully he gets to augment his progress and hone his skills at West Brom before a new bench warmer is needed at Chelsea. Villa are desperate for an injection of experience to steady the ship and plot a course for Safety Island (not a real island, I checked). The last time someone was this desperate for an injection was Lance Armstrong before the Stage 18 time-trial up Alpe d’Huez. The return of Ron Vlaar and Richard Dunne may provide that, and don’t forget they are still missing influential midfielder Stilian Petrov. Without those however they are side which lacks the battling qualities which are so sorely needed in this type of encounter, long day for The Villains….
Prediction: West Brom 3-1 Aston Villa
Fantasy player to start: Romelu Lukaku
Chelsea v Arsenal
Arsenal made a joke of my predictions last week after Laurent Koscielny choke-slammed Edin Dzeko to the floor early on and let Manchester City boss the rest of the game. This is a far more important game for Arsenal as you would have to think the title is now beyond Chelsea but they have a sufficient buffer to safely secure a top-four finish. While a point may be seen as a good result for the Gunners, they cannot afford to lose more ground on the teams above them and hope to easily catch it up later on in the season as they did last year. Chelsea have been fantastic on the road so far this season and I mentioned last week, good away form is normally a by-product of the type of footballing system Benitez likes to install. He is happy for teams to come on to him and expose teams weaknesses on the counter attack. If Arsenal feel the need to take all three points, it could be their downfall and my guess is this is what Benitez will plan for. Wenger has a decision to make in terms of whether he sticks Olivier Giroud up top or plays Walcott through the middle. I believe he will go with the latter option, mostly due to the fact that Giroud has looked about as useful as a chocolate teapot in recent weeks. The big boost for Wenger has been the improved form of Jack Wilshere and the return of Abou Diaby to bolster the midfield. If Arsenal are to win this game, the engine room supplied by this tandem will be the key to victory. Back-to-back league defeats usually counts as a mini-crisis these days at Arsenal and it’s been a while since we had one, maybe one is due….
Predicition: Chelsea 2-1 Arsenal
Fantasy Player to start: Juan Mata
Tottenham v Manchester United
A great game to round off Sunday’s action as Fergie takes his league leaders to White Hart Lane in what is usually an absorbing encounter. Liverpool showed last week how vulnerable United can be to pace and being pressed. It is no secret that they have shipped an alarming number of goals this season and on last weeks evidence there are still plenty of defensive fragilities that can be exposed if exploited in the correct way. I thought Spurs played perfectly well last week at QPR and they have now at lease found a consistency to their level of performance, they just failed to take their chances at the right moments and another striker to help share the burden would not go amiss, especially with the temporary absence of Adebayor. Last week also provided us with further evidence of just why Ferguson splashed the dough on RVP as he scored and made one last in last weeks win. With Rooney now back fit and scoring, he has his full stable of strikers to choose from and he must feel satisfied he has enough goals in his team to win most games. I keep coming back to their vulnerability against pace however, something which Spurs have in abundance and used to shock United earlier in the season at Old Trafford. A win for Spurs here would see the title race blown wide open. Deep breath, and blow….
Prediction: Tottenham 3-2 Manchester United
Fantasy Player to start: Jermaine Defoe
Southampton v Everton
Southampton have literally just sacked Nigel Adkins as I was writing this so what’s going on there is anybody’s guess as Adkins had appeared to have ridden out the early storm. Everton kept their first clean sheet since 1934 last week against Swansea last week so will take confidence from that but their lack of goals is a familiar problem. In January last year they brought in Nikica Jelavic to put away the chances they had been creating and missing. And boy did he put them away. But his goals have dried up this season and whilst points-wise they are in a much healthier position, some of the same frustrations are keeping this Everton team from progressing even further. Before the Adkins sacking I was all ready to predict a scoring draw in this one but breaking news has persuaded me to think the Saints may well be ripe for the taking….
Prediction: Southamption 1-2 Everton
Fantasy Player to watch: Steven Pienaar