Liverpool vs Norwich
Liverpool have turned around their home form recently, with four wins out of five all accompanied by clean sheets, as Rodgers’ team displays a new-found solidity at Anfield. Joint-third in home goals conceded is an impressive statistic, and if new signing Daniel Sturridge can continue taking the goalscoring pressure of Luis Suarez, Liverpool could be on the up.
Norwich on the other hand look like they’re on the slide. After a ten-match unbeaten run was brutally ended by four consecutive defeats, their goalless draw with Newcastle at least stopped the rot. This game has probably come too soon for the Canaries though, and is one which Liverpool should win comfortably.
Man City vs Fulham
Man City have reacted well to their shock defeat at Sunderland, bouncing back with three wins on the spin, including a sumptuous dismantling of Arsenal last weekend. With Vincent Kompany successfully appealing his red card from that game, City should be in a position to dole out another footballing lesson this time round. United face a tough match at White Hart Lane on Sunday, so this could be an opportunity for the blue half of Manchester to put some pressure on the leaders.
This is emphasised by the fact that Fulham’s form has been patchy at best this season, as they recently demonstrated by winning at the Hawthorns before disappointingly drawing with Wigan at home. The Cottagers’ last-gasp extra-time victory over Blackpool in midweek involved several first-team players who may now be rested, but two who didn’t feature will be crucial to Fulham’s chances here. Bryan Ruiz and Dimitar Berbatov will have to be at their creative, lethal best if they’re to bring anything away from Manchester. Unfortunately for Martin Jol’s side, City have the best defence in the league, having not conceded yet this month.
Newcastle vs Reading
The Magpies have been on a terrible run of late, exacerbated by losing players to injury, Chelsea, and now apparently QPR. Two wins in thirteen games and a humiliating third round defeat at the hands of Brighton have left last season’s Champions League contenders just two points above the drop zone. Alan Pardew needs to buy in what’s left of the transfer window, or risk testing the durability of his eight-year contract.
In contrast, Brian McDermott has managed to steer his side to two wins in their last three matches, albeit both at the Madjeski Stadium. Turning your home ground into a fortress is vital for any promoted team hoping to avoid relegation, and Reading are no different. Away from home though, the Royals have only picked up two points from eleven games. Despite Newcastle’s recent turmoil, their form at St. James’ Park has stayed solid, which is why they might just edge this encounter.
Swansea vs Stoke
It’s tempting to wonder whether Swansea may be distracted by their semi-final second leg with Chelsea on Wednesday, as it represents a fantastic chance to win their first ever major trophy. However, Chico, Britton and co playing at full pelt against Arsenal before the first leg proved that Wales’s finest are not letting their recent successes get to their heads. The true problem may lie in Swansea’s schedule – nine matches in twenty-seven days is immensely challenging, and they faded badly in the last twenty minutes at the Emirates.
Stoke have just been hit for a combined score of 7-0 by Man City and Chelsea, but Tony Pulis isn’t the type of manager to let his side get down-hearted. They’ll be chomping at the bit on Saturday, desperate to get on track again. Before their drubbing at the Etihad, the Potters had kept three clean sheets in a row on their travels. Expect them to go back to basics against a Swansea side unbeaten in their last six games.
West Ham vs QPR
The limp manner in which the Hammers exited the FA Cup on Wednesday has become characteristic of their recent away form. At home, however, Sam Allardyce’s men have looked a decent outfit, with wins against Norwich and Chelsea sandwiching unlucky defeats to both Merseyside clubs. Allardyce may have attracted derision when he claimed to be capable of managing Real Madrid, but he has always been a master of keeping sides in the Premier League.
Another proven veteran has been instigating a slow revolution at Loftus Road. QPR’s revival under Harry Redknapp has been bearing fruit lately, with their win at Stamford Bridge followed by a scoreless draw against Spurs that underlined their recent defensive solidity. One goal conceded in four matches tells its own story, and fans will hope that record signing Loic Remy can provide the goals his new side has been sorely lacking. The R’s have the worst conversion rate of any team in the league, netting just 8% of their shots. Upton Park is not the best place to fix that statistic though, meaning that the great escape may have to wait for now.
Wigan vs Sunderland
The Latics are as frustratingly inconsistent as ever, with three consecutive defeats followed by a thumping win, a heavy loss, and an encouraging draw. Wigan have picked up more points on their travels than at home this season, which is partly down to having let in a league-high twenty-two goals at the DW Stadium. Roberto Martinez has performed miracles in recent years to keep his side in the top flight on a shoestring budget, and once again finds himself on the precipice.
Martin O’Neill is starting to turn things round on Wearside, but it will have hurt him to be dumped out of the FA Cup by Bolton. A cup run looked a realistic and attractive prospect, demonstrated by the strong team O’Neill put out on Tuesday, and losing at home to a Championship side is always disappointing. The outcome of this match will depend on which teams show up – the Sunderland who thrashed West Ham 3-0 are more than capable of winning here, as are the version of Wigan who beat Aston Villa by the same scoreline. In cases like this, a draw is the safest bet.
West Brom vs Aston Villa
The latest instalment of this hotly-contested Midlands derby sees two sides very much out of form. As well as being ignominiously knocked out of the FA Cup by QPR, the Baggies have lost their last three league matches, slipping down the table after a fantastic start. Two wins in nine have revealed the thin nature of Steve Clarke’s squad, and additions are needed if a European challenge is to be maintained. However, most Albion fans would have taken a season of mid-table consolidation gleefully in the summer, and Clarke looks set to deliver that.
On the other side of the M5, Villa look like a team in trouble. Four losses in five games is bad enough, but conceding eighteen goals in the process while also going down 3-1 to a League Two club spells crisis in neon letters. Paul Lambert’s much-publicised faith in youth is admirable but has backfired in recent weeks after sparkling wins at Norwich and Liverpool. The return of Ron Vlaar should help to add some leadership to a side desperately lacking direction. However, in what will no doubt be a passionate, feisty game, West Brom’s extra experience and quality may just be enough to shade it.
Chelsea vs Arsenal
All of Chelsea’s recent struggles have come at Stamford Bridge, with Southampton’s comeback from two goals down added to QPR’s shocking triumph and the error-strewn first-leg defeat to Swansea. The theory goes that the Blues’ fans, riled by the unpopular appointment of Rafa Benitez, have created a punishing, poisonous atmosphere where frustration quickly turns to outright anger. On the plus side, new signing Demba Ba has settled in extremely well, with three goals in as many starts since his switch from Newcastle. Whether or not he starts this match against one of Chelsea’s main challengers for a top four spot will show how concerned Benitez is with rebuilding Fernando Torres’s confidence.
Arsenal fans will be able to empathise with their West London neighbours when it comes to hostile crowds. The mood at the Emirates has neared mutiny at points this season, though the apparently imminent signing of Theo Walcott to a new deal should provide a lift. Jack Wilshere’s incisive, mature display in the number ten position against Swansea also elicits optimism, as does Arsène Wenger’s revelation that he is prepared to add quality to his squad. The Gunners have been inconsistent all season, but with Wilshere and Santi Cazorla playing in advanced positions, they may just have the edge in this London derby.
Tottenham vs Man Utd
Spurs have shown commendable consistency since suffering three defeats in a row in mid-November, and lately their problems have been limited to sides that ‘park the bus’. United are unlikely to sit back, and with two attacking teams on show, this could well live up to standards set by September’s 3-2 thriller at Old Trafford. Then again, André Villas-Boas’s defence has only let in two goals in their last six league games, providing an air of solidity missing from many Spurs sides in the past. All in all, this match represents a fantastic chance for a resurgent Lilywhites to do the double over United for the first time in 39 years.
When it comes to Sir Alex Ferguson’s teams however, even an excellent opportunity must be taken with a pinch of salt, lest the observer desires to taste humble pie. While it has by all accounts not been a top-notch season for United thus far, nine wins in their last ten matches have them seven points ahead at the top. The Red Devils have also scored eleven more than any other team this season. Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie, who between them already have twenty-four league goals, are ready to test Spurs’ new-found resilience, and they will exploit any gaps they find. This fixture generally throws up fast-flowing, frenetic games, and hopefully this one will be no different, though United generally find a way of pulling three points from the chaos.
Southampton vs Everton
Two teams in a good run of form meet at St Mary’s on Monday evening. The Saints haven’t lost in their last five games, including impressive draws against Stoke, Arsenal and Chelsea. From a position earlier in the season where some critics were calling for his head, Nigel Adkins has taken his team to 15th in the league. It seems that the Saints have now acclimatised to the Premier League, tightening up considerably at the back while still looking to play the progressive football which got them promoted.
With just one defeat in their last ten matches, David Moyes has guided Everton to a position where they are once again genuine challengers for Champions League spot. Only Man City have fewer losses this season, and if the Toffees can hold on to prize assets Marouane Fellaini and Leighton Baines, they will be prime contenders. This match is the kind of fixture they must win if they’re to sit at Europe’s top table for the first time in eight years. Recent victories at St James’ Park and Upton Park suggest Moyes’s men are more than capable of achieving that feat. Since the end of September, all of Everton’s wins have come via a 2-1 scoreline, and that’s what I’m going for again here.