QPR v Tottenham
Harry gets a visit from his former employers in the first game of the weekend as Spurs travel across London to Loftus Road. I was tempted to fill this match preview with typical “Arry” clichés to mark the occasion but I’m not sure I could do him justice. My IQ just isn’t low enough. There is a growing feeling that both bosses are starting to put their respective stamps on their teams. The win at Chelsea must surely have given the Rangers squad a huge boost. They still have a mountain to climb in terms of escaping the drop but never underestimate what some confidence and belief can do to players. This QPR squad in particular is dripping with confidence players and if they can gain some momentum under Redknapp they will start to scare plenty of teams above them. They will have their work cut out this weekend though against a Spurs side who have found a level of consistency which a Chelsea team managed by Villas-Boas never achieved. There is now little doubt that he can get the best out of his current crop (something Redknapp was lauded for, and rightly so for the most part), his next challenge will be adding to his squad and developing his system. I would be surprised if we don’t see a new striker bought in January, especially with Adebayor now missing for most of the month. QPR will need new faces at both ends of the pitch, although captain Ryan Nelsen will be available after postponing his move to Toronto FC, where he will become Player/Manager. As stressful as management will be, he has been playing centre-half for QPR this season so if anything he will be over-prepared. This sets up to be an entertaining game. QPR will have their moments, Spurs will have goals….
Prediction: QPR 1-3 Tottenham
Aston Villa v Southampton
I’m not sure what stage of the season standard three-point games officially become “six-pointers” but if we are past that point then this game certainly qualifies. Southampton have found their stride of late having looked like early season relegation fodder. Fair dues to Nigel Adkins, he has stuck by his principles and is starting to reap the rewards and his team are now at least competitive in every game. Gaston “riskiest transfer of the summer” Ramirez has found his Premier League legs and has been at the heart of the Saints recent revival and while they will never resemble the AC Milan team of the late 80’s to early 90’s( look them up kids, they conceded about 4 goals in 6 years), they are defending better as a team. Villa stopped the rot at Swansea last week and were only denied by a late Danny Graham equaliser as up to then they enjoyed about as much festive cheer as Ebeneezer Scrooge opening his presents to find nothing but Comet vouchers. Maybe The Muppets can make that version for next year. Gonzo and Kermit might do a better job of defending than some of the recent Villa performances and the early promise of the Lambert era is starting to fade. His young players will have to start repaying the faith he has shown sooner rather than later. This could be a game where the Villa youngsters get plenty of time and to express themselves and space to operate, but Count von Count might needed to calculate their goals against….
Prediction: Aston Villa 2-2 Southampton
Everton v Swansea
This has the potential to be one of the match-ups of the weekend. Both teams like to control the flow and possession of a game, using Leon Osman and Britton respectively. Osman has had another fine season for Everton, his composure and distribution in midfield has been a joy to behold and many of the same compliments can be directed at Britton. Both teams use their Leon as a pivot to start and continue attacks. While other players such as Fellaini and Michu have grabbed the headlines, I felt it important to acknowledge the engine room of each team. Swansea continue to enjoy an excellent season on all fronts, combining attractive football with a steady stream of positive results. When you consider they lost their manager, backroom staff and four of their best players; Sinclair, Allen, Caulker and Neil Taylor through injury, their achievements are made even more remarkable. One of the few setbacks of the season however came against Everton. The Swans were soundly beaten that day and it is hard to see them turning around the form here in the midst of their heavy cup fixture list. Everton created a host of chances in the reverse fixture and this could be an afternoon when Nikica Jelavic finds his scoring boots. Plenty of nice passing on both sides, but Everton may just have the ability to mix it up more when it matters….
Prediction: Everton 2-0 Swansea
Fulham v Wigan
Just when you thought you couldn’t love Dimitar Berbatov any more than you already do, he goes and lifts his shirt up to reveal a witty message to end all messages. Berbatov may well be one of the few modern day footballers who displays a modicum of self-awareness. He is fully aware of how he is perceived and is at the stage of his career where he is playing up to his role as laconic genius. Whilst some will continue to brand him lazy and arrogant, I prefer to enjoy what is easily one of the most gifted players to ever stroll about a Premier League pitch. He ran the show then Fulham beat Wigan earlier in the season and could easily do so again. Wigan have so far signed Roger Espinoza and Angelo Henriquez who together with Jordi Gomez, Franco Di Santo and Ivan Ramis will form a Mariachi band. Any money raised from the band with go towards funds to buy actual players. Fulham have signed young Dutch striker Chris David, which got me thinking of other footballers with a forename as a surname. I could only think of Gareth Barry and I’m not sure England midfielders can really be counted as footballers. Hard to see Wigan keeping a clean sheet in any game, this will be no different….
Prediction: Fulham 3-1 Wigan
Norwich v Newcastle
Two teams falling faster than Felix Baumgartner meet at Carrow Road in what would normally be a certainty to be last game screened on Match of the Day, but wait until you see what’s coming later. Chris Hughton gets a chance to twist the knife into the club that dismissed him and while Hughton seems far too humble to publicly admit to any feelings of revenge, I am sure he will enjoy a quiet smile to himself if he manages to pull off a result here. He will never have a better chance. The Magpies have more wounded bodies than a scene from Platoon and also have to cope with the departure of Cheick Tiote to the African Cup of Nations. Demba Ba has also moved on to Chelsea to fulfil his lifelong dream of having more money than God. Although the loss of Ba is untimely, it may finally give Papiss Cisse a chance to resume a more central role which he was so devastatingly effective in during the second half of last season. Newcastle have had patches of good play amongst their bad run of form and the narrative of this game may play into their hands. Norwich will fancy their chances being at home and thus feel an onus to take the game to Newcastle. If The Toon can frustrate Norwich early, they may get some rewards…
Prediction Norwich 0-1 Newcastle
Reading v West Brom
These are the type of games Reading really need to start winning to have any hope of escaping the drop. Defending in general this season has been sub-standard but at Reading it has been subterranean. It is sad to say but they look like a Championship team who despite their best efforts, constantly find themselves out of their depth. West Brom on the other hand have had a fantastic season based on good scouting, good recruitment and good coaching. Isn’t that way things are supposed to be? If every team had an equal budget to spend, how you allocate your resources efficiently would be the defining factor between success and failure. If that were the case, West Brom would find themselves even higher up the table. Whilst results have suffered slightly in recent weeks, there is still enough quality to pick up plenty of points in the second half of the season, starting on Saturday…
Prediction: Reading 0-2 West Brom
Stoke v Chelsea
Big test for Rafa as he takes his Chelsea team to Stoke for what should be an informative contrast in styles. Nobody should be surprised at how his reign at Chelsea has started. He builds from the back, attempts to solidify his team as a unit, banking on his attacking players to create and take chances. It should also be no surprise that Chelsea have looked far more assured on their travels as opposed to games at Stamford Bridge. The way Benitez teams function is far more conducive to playing away from home. He is a pragmatic, counter-attacking manager which allows his players to exploit spaces left by a home team buoyed on by a partisan crowd. He is much more comfortable soaking up pressure and picking teams off. They struggle much more when they are forced to try and break teams down with movement and skill. Stoke have carved themselves a niche in the Premier League hierarchy whereby whenever a big team visits the Britannia, it is seen as a benchmark point in the season. It’s as if they are seen to typify what English football is really about and if a so-called top team can’t handle the challenge, they will be seen as too frail and fragile to achieve any real success. Demba Ba has a good record against Stoke and I fully expect him to start and score on Saturday. If Petr Cech was fit and available I would have predicted a comfortable Chelsea win but as he isn’t….
Prediction: Stoke 2-2 Chelsea
Sunderland v West Ham
Now THIS is a certainty to be given the graveyard shift on MOTD. Marouane Chamakh may make his debut for West Ham. I doubt many people will notice…
Prediction: Sunderland 0-0 West Ham
Manchester United v Liverpool
It is not hyperbole to say that the following two games have the ability make or break the title race. Both Manchester clubs face games which will test their ability and character on a defining Sunday afternoon. Manchester United get first crack at home to bitter rivals Liverpool it what is bound to be a tense affair, although it is hard to imagine tensions running any higher than the atmosphere which engulfed Anfield in the reverse fixture back in September. United deserved nothing from that game but ended up walking away with all three points as they came from a goal down to snatch victory despite a lacklustre performance. Indeed over recent years it seems to be a common theme that United turn up at Anfield believing they can pass their way out of trouble and draw the sting out of the game. It rarely works. They fail to match Liverpool for aggression and work-rate, losing the individual battles all over the pitch and thus being dominated for large periods of the game. Ferguson seems to treat it as a European away leg, pack the midfield and keep things tight. Yet at Old Trafford they are much more proactive and the results show a distinct change. They have beaten Liverpool in seven of the last eight meetings in Manchester. I see Van Persie being paired with Hernandez up top, supplied by Ashley Young and Valencia on the flanks to provide width and to really test the Liverpool full-backs. Liverpool have looked most vulnerable this season when pinned back and having to face a physical attack (it would not shock me to see Welbeck start, despite recent transfer rumours). It goes without saying that Liverpool’s ability to handle Van Persie will be a key to the game, not just his movement but also his set-piece delivery. At the other end of the field, Liverpool will pose United their own problems. In Luis Suarez they have a world-class talent capable of creating and taking his own chances. Manchester United will hope to contain him and limit the damage he does. Not even the return from injury of Nemanja Vidic has completely solidified the United defence so Suarez will be smelling blood if he gets space and time. Hard to imagine there won’t be goals in this game, both teams have not shown they are able to defend well consistently and both have lethal predators in front of goal. Chances will be created and chances will be taken at both ends and the outcome will come down to two or three key moments in the match. That being said, it may be the case that Manchester United have one or two more match-winners in their arsenal…
Prediction: Manchester United 3-2 Liverpool
Arsenal v Manchester City
Speaking of Arsenal, they host Manchester City in the second part of a Sunday football feast. If my predictions turn out to be correct(unlikely), City will find themselves ten points behind neighbours and title rivals United by the time they kick off so nothing less than a win will suffice. Arsenal are never more than two defeats away from a crisis these days so a defeat here and another one at Chelsea next week will bring doom and gloom back to the Emirates. All this points to it being a pivotal day in the story of the 2012/2013 Premier League season. What to expect from this game then? The Theo Walcott contract saga is up there with the popularity of John Bishop in terms of bizarreness. He never plays as a striker, his contract is running out, Wenger starts playing him as a striker and letting him take every free-kick, corner, throw in, goal kick and teamtalk. Now it looks like he will sign his deal and stay and Wenger will have his man, but at what cost? Is Theo the man to build the team around? Time will tell but I’m far from convinced. Also coming under the umbrella of ‘unconvincing’ brings us nicely to the title defence of Manchester City. Mancini is learning the hard way that Sir Alex does not stand still and you must constantly improve and react to be the best. Their summer transfer policy is coming back to haunt them in a big way. Whether Mancini or the powers that be at the Etihad are to blame for that is now a moot point, as either way the players that were brought in during the summer were not able to lift Manchester City to a higher level. Their Champions League exit highlighted it first and their laboured league campaign is continuing to reiterate the point. The squad all of a sudden looks thin (in relative terms), further depleted by the loss of Yaya Toure to international duty and Aguero to injury. It is hard to imagine any of the summer signings producing a moment which will turn the title race back in their favour, whereas Van Persie has already done it several times and this is the reality facing Mancini. He must rely on his big players to keep the ship together and when one or two are missing as mentioned above, the ship is exposed to all the elements. Arsenal will control this game, City will try to pack the midfield and deny Arsenal the space to create. Mancini will go with the legs and industry of Barry and Milner to combat the pace and guile of Cazorla and Wilshere. Mancini has prided his team on being tough to beat, but don’t they say pride comes before a fall….
Prediction: Arsenal 2-1 Manchester City