The English Premier League standings are tightening up, with equally scintillating races at the top for the championship and at the bottom to avoid relegation. Week 26 could potentially begin to separate some of those packed races, particularly at the bottom.
Whether or not the muddled table clears up will largely depend on the performance of a few key stars in each contest. With that in mind, let's try to forecast which players will have the biggest impact, as well as which clubs might pull a surprise on Matchday 26.
|Luis Suarez, LIV||8.68|
|Sergio Aguero, MC||7.76|
|David Silva, MC||7.72|
|Eden Hazard, CHE||7.70|
|Steven Gerrard, LIV||7.68|
The table above lists the players with the highest average rating, according to WhoScored.com, excluding Arsenal's Aaron Ramsey, who has not played since a thigh strain on Dec. 26. A couple of those stars have especially juicy matchups this week that should lead to huge games.
Liverpool's Luis Suarez has lapped the field in the scoring department, and the Uruguayan striker gets to face a last-place Fulham squad that has allowed the most goals in the league. Indeed, Suarez has feasted upon the bottom feeders this season:
61% (14) of Luis Suarez's 23 league goals have come against teams in the Premier League's bottom 5— Think Football (@Think_Football) February 9, 2014
Suarez has actually gone a bit cold of late, with no goals in four of his past five contests. Then again, he has chipped in four assists over that time, so it is not as if he has totally disappeared from Liverpool's offensive production.
When the Reds faced Fulham back in September, Suarez scored twice and took an astounding 10 shots during the match. Look for the league's top scorer to snap out of his mini-drought and find his way onto the scorer's sheet multiple times.
While Suarez has been the league's best scorer the whole season, Chelsea midfielder Eden Hazard is coming off one of the season's most impressive single-game scoring displays. The Belgian midfielder notched a hat-trick against Newcastle, and his 12 league goals are tied for fourth-best.
Hazard is just starting to get recognition as one of the world's elite midfielders, despite showing noticeable improvements in his second Premier League campaign. Blues boss Jose Mourinho believes Hazard deserves more recognition and hardware for his rise, per SkySports.com:
Eden Hazard is this player, a player for some reason he didn't get one single player of the month in this Premier League.
And this performance today was just different than other performances because today he scored three goals. But he had other performances exactly the same as he did today, so it is quite surprising for me that such a young player with what he is showing this season is never player of the month.
This week, Hazard gets to feast on a West Brom squad that has had recent defensive lapses after a steady start, having allowed at least three goals in two of the past three matches. Chelsea should have little trouble staying atop the Premier League table, and Hazard will once again receive the opportunity to shine.
On paper, there are numerous mismatches on the Week 26 slate. And while it's difficult to justify an upset prediction for most of those contests, Sunderland stands a significantly better chance playing at Etihad Stadium than many would grant them.
First, the aura of Manchester City's impregnability at home is now fully diffused after Chelsea's dominating 1-0 victory, a win that easily could have been more lopsided. More importantly, the Citizens are clearly wearing down playing four competitions at once, with injuries taking a toll.
According to John Edwards of the Daily Mail, Manuel Pellegrini was blunt about his team's shortcomings at the moment:
I was concerned before the last match against Chelsea because it is not normal to have five players injured for an important game, and two or three more less than 100 per cent. I was concerned also about this match and it is going to be difficult again next week.
We have a very tough week coming up, playing in three competitions. There is a Premier League game against Sunderland, FA Cup against Chelsea then Champions’ League against Barcelona. We will see how we can recover the players during these days but those sort of demands do stretch resources and lead to fitness problems and fatigue.
Moreover, Sunderland have actually been a better road squad, having earned 13 points in 12 road contests, as opposed to 11 in 13 contests at Stadium of Light. Before a loss last weekend, the Black Cats had earned 13 points in their past five league matches to claw their way out of the relegation zone.
Now sitting in the coveted 17th position, Sunderland are trending in the right direction while the Goliath they face are wavering on an unsteady foundation. Sunderland may not pull out the full three points on the road, but let's say they earn a point with a final score of Sunderland 2, Manchester City 2.
Meanwhile, Southampton have performed remarkably well in their second post-promotion season and will remain in the Premier League barring a monumental late-season collapse. The Saints have worked their way into the top half of the standings on the strength of a stingy defense, as only four squads have allowed fewer than the 29 Southampton have conceded.
Nevertheless, they face a difficult challenge this week at the KC Stadium, where Hull have been one of the league's best clubs. The Tigers have earned 19 of their 27 points at home and hold a plus-seven home goal differential that ranks as sixth-best in the league.
Ironically, though, it's their road victory at Sunderland that may be the boost to propel Hull safely out of the relegation zone. The 2-0 victory was a victorious return for ex-Sunderland boss Steve Bruce, and new transfer arrival Shane Long has made his impact felt already:
Despite their 11th-place standing, Hull sit just four points above the final relegation spot. A home victory would serve as a critical boost to keeping their heads above water as the season winds down.
Southampton look safely secured for next season, nine points ahead of 10th-place Swansea. At the moment, Hull are the more desperate side, so look for the Tigers to pull off a mild upset by the score of Hull City 3, Southampton 2.