Hearing Jose Mourinho continually play down Chelsea’s title ambitions is like attending an advanced seminar in reverse psychology. His self-effacing skepticism belies the fact that Chelsea now lurk menacingly within striking distance of leaders Arsenal, a team that they possess a gigantic mental edge over. The game at Anfield will prove the ultimate litmus test of Arsenal’s title surge. They have been punishing the weaker teams of late, but now they enter a run of successive games against teams whom possess the ammunition to hurt the London outfit. The sacking of Michael Laudrup has given the Welsh derby this weekend added significance. The loser of that fixture, particularly if that were to be Cardiff, could find themselves in a log free fall that could quash even the most resilient of Welsh dragons. It truly promises to be a critical weekend at both ends of what has fast become one of the most unpredictable campaigns in recent memory.
Brendan Rodgers must have wondered who those imposters were last weekend donning the famous red kit of Liverpool. After their mauling of Everton, Liverpool were expected to roll West Brom over with casual indifference. However, a lack of defensive and midfield depth once again left the Reds fans frustrated and quite rightfully quizzical over Rodgers lack of transfer activity. Arsenal dominated Liverpool at the Emirates earlier this season, controlling the midfield area with their array of gifted ball playing midfielders. Suarez and Sturridge have the ability to hurt Liverpool but it is in the middle of the park where they are totally dwarfed by the quality of Arsenal. Still, I feel Liverpool may lose the midfield battle but still steal a point by virtue of their maverick strikers. The draw is tipped at 5/2.
Andy Carroll had his appeal to rescind his red card from last weekend brusquely denied, a decision that will leave Big Sam in quite a desperate situation up front. He may just gamble on new Italian striker Borriello, but one cannot underestimate how critical Carroll is to the chemistry (or perhaps agriculture) of West Ham United. Aston Villa will sense this vulnerability and hope that players like Weimann and Benteke can exploit a fragile West Ham defensive unit. Players like Tomkins and Collins hardly inspire the greatest solidity. Villa should be able to punish a Hammers side without their only really effective nail, as Benteke shows West Ham how vital that big focal point can be. Back Villa at 11/10.
Newcastle United’s decision to sell Cabaye, while financially prudent, has left an indelible lack of creativity in the heart of the Newcastle midfield. Their humiliating derby day defeat to Sunderland was met with a chorus of boos at St James’ Park that would seem to suggest that there is a massive implosion on the way at Newcastle, a fact givien further credence by the resignation of Joe Kinnear. Chelsea have been impressive and should systematically dismantle a deteriorating Newcastle side. Eden Hazard will dazzle in his Fred Astaire manner while Willian and Ramires continue to grow into players of international stature. Chelsea on the ‘cap at 15/20 will do for me.
Tony Pulis has made a specialty of earmarking games of essential significance. An away trip to Arsenal last week for Crystal Palace was almost an unnecessary distraction ahead of this home game. West Brom will probably feel that they did enough to even sneak a win last week against Liverpool. Mulumbu was immense in midfield while Anichebe finally satisfied his goal potential. Palace have been impressive in these imminently winnable home fixtures, collecting points in their own pragmatic style. I expect this trend to continue and for Palace to once again underline their survivalist instinct. Back them at 15/10.
Southampton have retained their status as everybody’s second-favorite side. They seem to embrace an idealistically open style of football that many would have thought unwise for a so-called ‘weaker’ side. The trio of Lambert, Lallana and Rodriguez continue to interchange remarkably well, while Clyne returned to his right fullback role to solidify the defense. Stoke’s huge win against United will probably not be as tough as the test that awaits them this weekend. In a twisted footballing version of “Beauty and the Beast”, the cool aesthetic of Southampton comes up against the belligerent beast that is Stoke. And you have to fancy the confident, free-flowing football provided by that front trio will make the difference. With Stoke poor on the road, I’m taking the Southampton halftime-fulltime double at 5/4.
The revival of Sunderland has confounded even the most loyal of fans. What exactly was Paolo Di Canio doing wrong? Adam Johnson has made a late and unlikely surge for possible England selection, seemingly regaining both his finishing and dribbling abilities. Hull stopped their 2014 rot last weekend with a commendable draw against Spurs that saw Shane Long stamp his mark on his new club. Sunderland have the momentum but I don’t expect their afternoon to be as comfortable as their previous weeks have been. Still, back them to come up trumps at 11/10.
It is hard to imagine that such a game could carry any more significance than this. Forget the fact that this is a unique Welsh derby that will bring the country to a virtual standstill, the sacking of both Laudrup and Malky Mackay has further exacerbated the importance of Premier League football to this region. Cardiff's Ole Gunnar Solskjaer knows that defeat here will be a huge setback for his side’s survival status. Swansea will have to get over any lingering daddy issues and rediscover the football they played last season. Routledge and Dyer will be crucial in trying to reclaim their mojo, but ultimately I feel Cardiff will get something out of the game. The draw is tipped at 5/2.
David Moyes’ post-match press conferences have started to take on something of an absurd quality; he has to come back to reality and admit that Manchester United has simply been poor in recent weeks. The Mata signing will take a little time to reap rewards; why he didn’t start Januzaj the other day is a question beyond my capacity to understand. Fulham’s embarrassing Cup defeat to League One Sheffield United punctuated what is turning into a cataclysmic season at Craven Cottage. They simply are not good enough; Senderos and Hangeland are too slow in central defense while Scott Parker is left to do the work of four men in midfield. United have been less than convincing recently but should be able to regain some confidence with a comfortable win here. Take United on the halftime-fulltime double at 7/10.
The man knows his football, but even he gets it wrong from time to time. Feel free to share your EPL tips and multiples below.