With cup commitments over for now, clubs can return to the real business at hand as the league returns in full force this weekend. The marquee fixture of the season sees title favourites Chelsea poised to cement their credentials against the somewhat despairing champions. Pellegrini knows that his side needs a positive result which should necessitate a pulsating fixture at the Bridge. The hunt for a top four spot has gone into overdrive in recent weeks, with perennial Champions League entities Manchester United and Arsenal fighting off the sustained charge of Southampton and Co. The battle to avoid the drop intensifies with every week, with the loser of the Sunderland-Burnley match in real danger of joining the bottom three. The variety of permutations at present make this one of the most exciting Premier League seasons in some time, with nothing certain as yet aside from scintillating football.
Hull City’s demise has been as cruel a confluence of fate that one will ever see in a single campaign. The extent of their injury list can only be matched by the importance of the players lost at critical periods. Diame started like a house on fire only to be struck by injury. Hernandez and Jelavic were injured on the same weekend, leaving Hull desperately short in the striking department. Newcastle are a side in desperate need of an overhaul, with too few players of substance intermingled with inexperience. I expect a game of little quality that should render few goals and an unclear victor. Under 2.5 goals at 11/20 is the play here.
Sunderland’s reputation as draw specialists has been derailed in recent times by their new commitment to defeat. Their limited attacking options seem to hinge on the mercurial talents of Adam Johnson and the pure, predatory instinct of Stephen Fletcher. Other than that, their team really resembles a hard-working Championship side with very few quality players. Burnley’s rigorous commitment to an attacking brand of football can sometimes be detrimental to their cause, as in their last 2-3 defeat to Crystal Palace. But you cannot help but admire the philosophies espoused by Dyche and expressed through the likes of Ings and Arfield. The return of Vokes has added extra dynamism to a side that will prove a real handful to the Black Cats. A surprise away win to Burnley at 5/2 is the tip.
Stoke City’s cup progress will give them added confidence going into this inviting home fixture. QPR have been absolutely awful on the road, unable to create any go-forward ball for Charlie Austin to latch onto. The likes of Kranjcar and Taarabt just don’t have the physicality to deal with N’Zonzi and Adam. I expect an extremely comfortable home victory for Stoke at 6/10, one that could mean trouble for the ever beleaguered Harry Redknapp.
Manchester United will be wary of the bottom-placed Leicester Foxes, especially considering the hurly-burly defeat they suffered at the hands of Nigel Pearson’s side earlier this season. But the dust seems to have settled to some degree under Van Gaal, whose galaxy of superstars should be far too strong for a Leicester side becoming slightly detached at the bottom of the league. Mata and Rooney will frustrate Leicester’s workmanlike midfield, setting up a comfortable United win at 7/20.
Alan Pardew has truly revitalized the fortunes of Crystal Palace, with an added emphasis on attack that has been reflected in two consecutive 3-2 victories. Sanogo’s loan signing has emboldened the club while reinvigorating the likes of Dwight Gayle and Jason Puncheon. Roberto Martinez’s Everton side have perfectly demonstrated the limitations of his footballing ideologies. A philosophy should be tempered by the tools at one’s disposal; look at the way in which West Ham’s stylistics have altered with the arrival of key players. Baines and Coleman have been exposed horribly by Martinez’s incessant need for them to bombard their respective flanks while Romelu Lukaku’s dip in form has taken on Shakespearean proportions. Get Palace to win or draw on the Double Chance at 9/20.
Liverpool’s season has been a proverbial roller coaster of emotions. Balotelligate was followed by a succession of decent unbeaten runs, runs which were however ended by defeats to arch-rivals Manchester United and Chelsea. West Ham’s unbelievable start to the season will lend them outrageous confidence going into this encounter, especially with the considerable musculature of Andy Carroll powering them forward. Sakho will also prove a handful for a Liverpool side vulnerable to unbounded athleticism - see Sissokho and Bolasie. Be prudent and take the Reds to win or draw at 1/6.
Tony Pulis’ fine start at West Brom will come under intense scrutiny with the visit of Spurs. Pochettino’s side have been surprisingly resilient in the league and now have a Wembley final against Chelsea to throw into their mid-season maelstrom. Christian Eriksen has evolved under the tutelage of Pochettino while Harry Kane has continued his emergence in the vanguard of the New-English attacking threat. Despite Tony Pulis’ great start at West Brom, I foresee problems with the swift counterattacking emphasis of Spurs. I’m going for a Spurs win here at 15/10. Pulis showed at Crystal Palace that he had very little attacking intent - which is fine when securing away points - but will not do when forced to be more pro-active at home.
If Chelsea were to win on Saturday, they will take a massive step towards securing Jose Mourinho’s third title as Chelsea manager. Chelsea followed their ignominious FA Cup defeat with a morale boosting victory over in-form Liverpool, thus setting up their first chance of silverware in the Capital One Cup final. Manchester City are in need of a similar boost following their own unexpected exit in the FA Cup, with Yaya Toure’s absence proving difficult to offset. Chelsea have been tremendous at home and will relish the fact that City will have to force the pace. Chelsea will counter attack swiftly through Hazard and Willian, while Costa’s physical presence will disrupt an unsettled City defence. Take Chelsea at even money.
Paul Lambert’s managerial campaign at Aston Villa has seldom been one immersed in comfort. And despite a shaky FA Cup win over Rochdale, Villa are simply not scoring enough goals to suggest a reversal of fortune. If they were in a similar league position - but played more attractive football - the home supporters would probably be more forgiving. Arsenal were uncharacteristically efficient in defeating champions City, displaying defensive rigour as well as counterattacking fluidity. Tomas Rosicky has filtered seamlessly back into the side while Alexis Sanchez only gains in stature as the weeks progress. I’m expecting a big win here, so will opt for the halftime-fulltime double - Arsenal to win both halves at 7/10.
The confidence of the Swans was shaken to the core by champions elect Chelsea last time out, with Mourinho’s side unfortunate to have not amassed a ludicrous score-line at the Liberty Stadium. When divorced of possession, Swansea are unable to incorporate the critical passing of both Gylfi Sigurdsson and Wayne Routledge. Any side would also struggle with the departure of Wilfried Bony; the Ivorian was their top-scorer as well as a critical part of their possession-based build-up play. Speaking of absentees, Sigurdsson will also be unavailable until late February after receiving a straight red card in Swansea’s FA cup exit. Southampton are masters of possession-based football and should prove far too strong for the shaky Swans. Tadic and Ward-Prowse will control possession while Bertrand and Clyne relentlessly invade the Swans’ flanks. Southampton to win at 11/20.
10-leg English Premier League Multiple Price - 254/1
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