The Premier League table is starting to take on an eerie coherence with the ascent of both Manchester United and a resurgent Arsenal. Liverpool are the one huge club still wallowing in the quagmire that is the bottom half of the table; Brendan Rodgers knows that he has to pick up something at home this weekend. Santi Cazorla and Olivier Giroud lit up the Emirates last weekend and played with a fluency that will be daunting for a beleaguered Liverpool. Manchester City will be hoping for a comfortable home win while Chelsea face a tricky away trip to Stoke. Another fixture that jumps out is the Tyne-Wear derby that sees resurrected Newcastle United face a Sunderland side still battling for consistency. This could be another interesting weekend that has the potential to further confuse both the title and relegation battle.
Manchester City were hardly in vintage form last weekend and banked on the revered goal scoring exploits of Frank Lampard to see them past a tricky Leicester side. David Silva continues to regain match fitness however and in conjunction with Yaya Toure they will be a formidable midfield unit. Neil Warnock’s Crystal Palace side hover precariously above an ever tightening relegation zone. Bolasie and Zaha provide pace on the counterattack - which will be critical in a game which will see them surrender the lion’s share of possession. Even without Vincent Kompany, who aggravated his recent hamstring injury at Leicester, City will be far too powerful for a Palace side devoid of real quality. Take City to win both halves on the halftime-fulltime double at 8/10.
Paul Lambert’s Aston Villa side will have welcomed a more inviting fixture than the form team in the competition. Manchester United have also beaten Villa in all seven of their last meetings, a stat that does not bode well for a side overly reliant on Christian Benteke. They will also be without ex-United man Kieron Richardson following an over-exuberant lunge at West Brom. All in all, Villa look hopelessly unequipped to deal with the growing United threat. Rooney and Mata look to be cultivating an excellent understanding while Robin Van Persie is growing in confidence. Get United at 6/10.
Hull City’s season has started to take on nightmarish dimensions with Steve Bruce’s side battling to navigate injury concerns and an inability to score. Nikica Jelavic is hardly the most prolific striker while Hernandez remained puzzlingly on the bench against Chelsea. Tom Huddlestone - the bedrock of their ailing midfield - is suspended following a horrible lunge this past weekend. Swansea were ascendant after equalising against Spurs and only have themselves to blame for not putting that game to bed. Bony continues to shine while Gylfi Sigurdsson and Routledge are the chief providers. Hull, now without the controlling influence of Huddlestone, will battle if Swansea manage to click into gear. Swansea to win or draw at 7/20 is the bet here.
QPR were actually quite good against Everton on Monday, despite the ridiculous 3-1 scoreline. Without Charlie Austin they lacked a clinical edge in the final third that would have rewarded the gut-busting runs of both Junior Hoilett and Onuoha. West Brom managed to ninja past a ten man Villa, with the pace of Sessegnon vital to unlocking an equally dire Villa side. Craig Gardner scored his first West Brom goal but I should think that Harry will be able to draw enough encouragement from Monday night to motivate his side. QPR to win at 14/10.
Southampton’s recent dip in form is symptomatic of sides with strong ideological underpinnings. Ronald Koeman’s side has built their impressive start to the season on a dynamic passing game that relied heavily on the vision of both Schneiderlin and Tadic. Now that there have been a few poor results, Koeman does not seem able to adjust his game plan - like Sam Allardyce - to the more physically demanding rigour of the Christmas season. Everton desperately need to address the ageing centre-back pairing of Distin and Jagielka while Lukaku is battling to affect games as he did earlier this season. Mirallas and Barkley are the heartbeat of the side and will pose interesting questions for the more subtle qualities of the Southampton side. Wanyama will need to be strong in order to resist the bombarding midfield runs of both Mirallas and Barkley. This is difficult to predict - it may end up being a score-draw, so I’m going to tip Both Sides to Score at 15/20.
Spurs have managed to find more consistency on the road than at home, with Pochettino’s side still looking decidedly confused with exactly what style they are playing. Harry Kane offers the certainty of youth while Roberto Soldado continues to flummox those whom have followed the career of the talented Spaniard. Burnley have shown unbelievable resolve in extricating themselves from a doom that I would have certainly resigned them to. They play with an amazing sense of self-confidence and cohesion that should stand them in good stead in this combustible period. I honestly think Burnley will get something here, as Spurs have not impressed me in the least of late. Burnley to win or draw on the Double Chance at 13/10 is the tip here.
West Ham United have managed to remain in the top four due to their ability to shift their style fluidly. They are not overly reliant on their hard-man tactics anymore, with Andy Carroll now operating in tandem with the likes of Sakho and Valencia. Stewart Downing has been the comeback kid of the Premier League this season, with goals and assists flowing graciously from his fleet footed forays. Leicester chose the diplomatic approach in sacking their director of football, giving Nigel Pearson the opportunity to prove his worth in the coming weeks. This looks a difficult assignment however, especially considering that Ulloa and Vardy are their only real goal threats. I may be tempted to go for the halftime-fulltime double here at 29/20 in a comfortable West Ham win. I predict Pearson to get sacked and replaced by Tony Pulis.
Newcastle United’s log position - and indeed aura - took something of a blow at the hands of a merciless Arsenal side. Ayoze’s late consolation goal was but a brief respite in a game where they were hopelessly outmatched. Sunderland come into this derby in a state of utter inertia, apparently marooned in the awkward zone just above the relegation zone. Adam Johnson and Stephen Fletcher are their only consistent attacking threats, while Altidore looked hopelessly lethargic against West Ham. This should be an extremely tough and tight encounter which seems very difficult to predict. While I think Newcastle may just edge it, perhaps a safer bet would be to call this as a game of few chances and limited space, with Sunderland eager to avoid a derby day humiliation. Under 2.5 goals at 7/10 is the bet.
Who would have thought that Brendan Rodgers would have been the manager under more pressure coming into this fixture? Liverpool are a veritable ocean apart from the swashbuckling side that they were last year, with a succession of inadequate signings trying to somehow supplement the goals of Suarez. Arsenal seem to be on a high, despite the injuries of Walcott, Wilshere and Ozil. They are starting to once again intimidate visiting sides with their intricate football, with Alexis Sanchez and Aaron Ramsey providing a dynamic attacking midfield combination that allows Santi Cazorla some freedom to drift in his meandering manner. I battle to see how Gerrard, Lucas and Co. will deal with the athleticism of Sanchez and Ramsey. Giroud will also be difficult for a struggling defence to contain, lending a multi-dimensional appearance to this Arsenal side. I can’t see Liverpool winning this game in their current form, but they may be able to sneak a draw if they swallow their pride and play Can in midfield. Play this safe and take Arsenal to win or draw on the Double Chance at 4/10.
Stoke City have been resilient of late and have witnessed a welcome return to goal scoring for both Peter Crouch and John Walters. The midfield physicality of N’Zonzi and Charlie Adam has been reenergized by the pure quality of Barcelona by-blow Bojan. His guile has led to a more multi-faceted Stoke side which can switch between brute force and deft ingenuity. Chelsea continue to fly high and successfully saw themselves into the semi-finals of the Capital One Cup. It is impressive how their fringe players, such as Felipe Luis and Schurrle, have the ability to fit seamlessly into Mourinho’s vision. Chelsea will find it tough this weekend but should benefit from the extra time allotted with this being a Monday night fixture. Stoke will provide stout resistance, but Chelsea’s wealth of returning first-team talent should be too much in the end. Additionally, Diego Costa is the one forward who can outmuscle Ryan Shawcross and Co. Chelsea to win at 6/10 on Monday night.
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