English Premier League: Predictions and Previews of the Weekend's Action
Hello all, and welcome to what will hopefully become a regular feature for me where I give you the lowdown on the weekend's Barclays Premier League action, as well as my own predictions for each match.
Matches are ordered from kick-off time.
West Ham United v. Manchester United
In what is probably the highlight of the weekend's action, the resurgent Hammers take on the increasingly fragile looking Red Devils, and whilst they are at opposite ends of the table, the form book suggests this should a very good match.
West Ham are now unbeaten in five in the league and have scored 14 in the process, a run that has seen the club haul themselves out of the relegation zone, though Avram Grant will know his side are still in a battle to avoid the drop.
Key man Scott Parker showed good form for England against Wales during the international break and should recover from a slight niggle picked up in that game in time to start on Saturday, meaning no fresh injury concerns for Grant, though he could be tempted to start the experienced loanee Robbie Keane up front.
On the other side of the form book, Man Utd were lucky to take three points from Bolton in their last league outing and before that suffered demoralising defeats at the hands of Chelsea and arch rivals Liverpool and suffered their heaviest defeat of the season to The Irons in a 4-0 reverse in the Carling Cup.
SAF's men have come back without injuries from the internationals, and they should welcome back Nemanja Vidic and Ji-sung Park back to the squad but with Ferguson keeping one eye on the midweek Champions League fixture at Chelsea, do not expect a full strength line up.
An important game with both sides needing three points, it unfortunately depends on how SAF lines up. A weakened Man Utd side against a confident West Ham could end unhappily for the Manchester faithful, especially away from home whereas there is little to discourage the Hammers, and I expect the crowd to get behind a positive starting XI from Grant. 2-1 to West Ham.
Birmingham City v. Bolton Wanderers
These two sides meet again after Bolton triumphed recently in the FA Cup. An entertaining game saw The Trotters squeeze in injury time and City's players and fans will surely have revenge on their mind.
Birmingham are not having it their own way right now. Seemingly on a hangover from the recent Carling Cup success, they have been on a dip that has them lying in the relegation at zone at present.
Inconsistency has been at the heart of the problem, with a a decent draw at Everton sandwiched between home defeats to Wigan and city rivals West Brom. They should be boosted by the return of Alex Hleb, but Lee Boywer and James McFadden are still out.
Owen Coyle's Bolton are one of the form teams of the League and are possible contenders for a Europa League spot at present. The unfortunate loss at Old Trafford was preceded by staying unbeaten in five, including the aforementioned Cup win at St. Andrews.
With no new injury problems, expect a line up similar to the one that has served the Reebok faithful well in recent times, speared on by loanee goal machine Daniel Sturridge.
Unfortunately for Alex McLeish and the Blues contingent, I can only see this going one way. Coyle has his team playing some wonderful stuff, and I fully expect that to continue. 2-0 to Bolton.
Everton v. Aston Villa
An intriguing match that, at the beginning of the season many would have thought as a battle for a European place whereas Villa find themselves in a bid to avoid the drop and David Moyes' men have only recently dragged themselves away from the drop zone.
With the 40 points now on the board that is seen to guarantee safety, Everton should be looking to kick on and grab a European spot and the much needed revenue boost this would bring.
The problem for The Toffees is that with five first team players out (Coleman, Saha, Rodwell, Arteta and Fellaini) the old problem of scoring goals could resurface at Goodison. Expect Bilyaletdinov to start with Jermaine Beckford possibly partnering Tim Cahill up front.
Despite all the hysteria surrounding Gerard Houllier, I fully expect Aston Villa to survive the drop this season comfortably, but results need to pick up sharpish. They looked impotent during the home defeat to Wolves last run out, and Houllier will know a firework needs shoving somewhere to add some spark, as the talent is all there.
The Villans will be hoping Ashley Young maintains the excellent form he showed for England, Luke Young (the sole goalscorer the last time these two met) and Richard Dunne are expected to be available for selection.
Everton will no doubt see plenty of the ball, but when it comes down to the final third they are lacking in quality due to injuries. Last season, Ashley Young scored a couple of superb counter attacking goals in this fixture, and I reckon he'll be critical again. 0-1 to Villa.
Newcastle United v. Wolverhampton Wanderers
Wolves have performed very well in recent times, whilst Newcastle have left something to be desired. You have to go back to Jan. 5th when St.James' Park was able to celebrate a home victory—a slump that sees this fixture billed as a relegation dogfight.
As already mentioned, Newcastle has been less than impressive at home in recent times, though hat trick hero from that previous victory (5-0 against West Ham) Leon Best should be back from injury to supply some attacking impetus.
However, with five other first teamers out for the forseeable future Magpie fans will be looking over their shoulder nervously if three points are missed out on here.
Wolves, on the other hand, are only looking up. With only one defeat in six, a run that included victory over the previous invincible Man Utd, has seen a team that seemed glued to the bottom of the league able to move out of the drop zone with victory at St. James.
Although an injury to key front man Kevin Doyle whilst on international duty will dampen the mood, winger Stephen Hunt should be fit and ready for selection.
With both teams lacking key attacking talents, this one will be a bit of a snooze fest. 0-0 bore draw, I'm afriad, but a valuable point for all involved.
Stoke City v. Chelsea
Both sides picked up good home wins last time out (against Newcastle and Man City respectively), but Chelsea will be looking at this fixture with some trepidation as no one likes visiting the Britannia Stadium, especially when you're chasing the Premier League title.
Stoke seem to be heading towards mid-table mediocrity once more though I can't see too many Potters fans being unhappy with that. No fresh injury concerns for Stoke, so expect Rory Delaps rocket throw ins to feature, as well as the newly dangerous looking Ricardo Fuller.
Will Chelsea win the Premier League?
Currently unbeaten in eight at home in all competitions, the atmosphere will be typically raucous and unwelcoming inside the Britannia, with the fans looking for another big team scalp.
Despite being written off by many earlier in the season, Chelsea are looking like title contenders once again. Important home victories against the two Manchesters recently, where new Brazilian defender David Luiz has scored in both, have seen them leapfrog the blue side and are nine points behind the Red Devils with a game in hand.
Every game is a must win now for Carlo Ancelotti's side, though he also has the headache of a Champions League quarter final against the Red Devils in midweek to contend with.
Stoke will give it their all, but Chelsea have that annoying winning habit that befits the title challengers, and surely Fernando Torres has to come good soon?. A comfortable 3-0 win for the Blues.
West Bromich Albion v. Liverpool
Another match featuring two teams in decent nick, this one is probably the pick of the 3 p.m. kick offs. Both sides have secured victories against their fiercest rivals in recent times, this fixture will also feature Roy Hodgson returning to the club he had such a torrid time in the in the first half of the season.
Since Roy's introduction, West Brom have been injected with a never say die attitude that has seen them secure late points from Wolves and Stoke, as well as an emphatic derby win over Birmingham and a 2-2 draw with Arsenal that they deserved more from, leaving Albion fans hopeful that the yo-yo of promotion/relegation may finally come to an end.
There are no injury concerns right now for Hodgson, and the exciting Carlos Vela, on loan from the Gunners, will be available once more after being ineligible to play against his home club.
Liverpool are very much the Jekyll and Hyde of the Premier League right now. A 3-1 reverse at West Ham followed by a 3-1 win over old enemies Man Utd. Knocked out of the Europa League by comparative minnows Braga followed by a 2-0 win away at Sunderland.
King Kenny will be buoyed by the return of attacking double of Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez, and captain Steven Gerrard should be fit though is unlikely to be risked in the starting line up.
This is a very close one indeed. However, I can see Roy firing up his players after his treatment at the hands of Liverpool and securing three crucial points for the home side. 2-1 to West Brom
Wigan v. Tottenham Hotspur
Very much a tale of differing fortunes in this match that sees a Real Madrid bound Spurs head to rock bottom Wigan. Despite this, Spurs have only managed five points from 12, whilst Wigan broke their losing streak in their last run out.
Despite the recent 2-1 win at Birmingham, Wigan are still in serious trouble, and manager Roberto Martinez will be feeling the pressure. For those reasons expect a slightly more attacking formation, with Hugo Rodallega starting alongside Chelsea loanee Franco Di Santo with key player Charles N'Zogbia in midfield as The Latics look to capitalise on what will no doubt be an understrength Spurs side.
As mentioned above, Harry Redknapp's Spurs will no doubt be looking ahead to Tuesday's huge Champions League match at the Bernabeu. Despite this, however, three points will be 'Arry's aim here as Tottenham look to secure Champions League football next year.
Expect injury prone Rafael van der Vaart, superstar Gareth Bale and Jermaine Defoe to be rested amongst others, whilst starts look likely for Roman Pavlyuchenko, Peter Crouch and Niko Kranjcar.
Wigan will feel they have a real chance against a reduced Spurs side but for me there is too much strength in depth for Redknapp's side and a win here will be a timely morale boost before the visit Ronaldo et al. 2-0 to Tottenham.
Arsenal v. Blackburn Rovers
The Premier League now represents Arsenal's only chance of silverware this season after being dumped out the the two domestic cups and the Champions League recently. This is their first home League game since that, so a dangerously out of for Blackburn will need to be cautious.
Arsene Wenger's Arsenal are a wounded beast at current. The misery of the above cup failures compounded by a disappointing draw at West Brom that saw them 2-0 down at one stage will only serve as motivation as The Gunners chase their first League title since 2005.
Robin Van Persie is expected to be fit despite hobbling off for Holland during their Euro 2012 qualifier and Theo Walcott should return after sitting out the international break.
Blackburn could hardly be in any worse shape right now. Only two wins in 2011, one of which came against Championship side QPR, have left many a Rovers fan wishing for Sam Alladyce back as talk of relegation begins.
Current manager Steve Kean will know his side face an uphill battle to get anything at the Emirates, so a 4-5-1 formation is likely with a potential start for Jason Roberts as the big man will look to get in amongst a notoriously fragile Arsenal back line.
For many observers this match is a forgone conclusion, and I'm not going to disagree. Rovers are in serious trouble, and I'm unsure Kean is the man to turn things around. 4-0 to Arsenal.
Fulham v. Blackpool
Another must win for both teams. A win for Fulham all but guarantees Premier League survival when a win for Blackpool will see them go ahead of their opponents. The League really is that close this season.
Fulham's form has improved gradually since the start of the season, manager Mark Hughes will know his side are still dropping too many points with draws, having now recorded 14 stalemates for the season.
Creative midfielder Steve Sidwell should be available for selection once more, and the Cottagers' player of the season last year, Bobby Zomora is line for a first start since returning from injury.
I'm not going to lie, Blackpool have been my favourite team to watch this season. As entertaining though they may be to watch, an alarming slump in which only two league wins since New Year have been recorded has seen them free fall down the table.
Currently sitting in a group with three other teams on 33 points, manager Ian Holloway will be keen to arrest the slide. Goalkeeper Matt Gilks is once again fit, though unlikely to start after being out since early November.
Holloway's men will make Fulham work for it, but I can only see a home win here. Fulham will have more than than enough to exploit the inevitable gaps created by Blackpool's attack philosophy in the likes of Zamora and Damien Duff. 3-1 to Fulham.
Manchester City v. Sunderland
City lost third place recently after defeat to Chelsea and will be keen to arrest a dip in form that also saw them knocked out the Europa League. After the investment seen in the squad in recent seasons, Steve Bruce's Sunderland will be disappointed not to be challenging for Europe, but will still be looking to secure a top half finish.
Despite many a prediction of the opposite, Roberto Mancini's City are on course to qualify for the Champions League for the first time in their history, although Spurs will keep fighting to the last game as evidenced by last season, making three points a priority here.
They will have to do without club captain and leading scorer Carlos Tevez however and January signing Edin Dzeko has been average at best so expect a start for unpredictable Mario Balotelli who will feel he has something to prove after being sent off in the recent Europa League defeat to Kiev.
Sunderland fans will no doubt be concerned by a run that has seen them take only one point from a possible 18 albeit against some tough opponents. However, this is still the side that routed Chelsea 3-0 at Stamford Bridge not long ago, so they shouldn't be written off lightly, and fans should not be too concerned about any relegation whispers.
There are no new injury concerns for Steve Bruce, so expect England heartbreak Asamoah Gyan to start, hoping to inflict more misery on City's England contingent.
Mancini has usually gone on the attack in these sorts of games and I expect nothing different. Sunderland have a good forward thinking mentality themselves, but the defence has been weak in recent times and I expect the expensively acquired City players to overwhelm them. 3-0 to Manchester City.
Well there we have it, my predictions for the weekend as well as some team news I hope will give you the insight to come up with your own; so please do and drop them below!
I'll see you again next week....
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