The Premier League returns in the aftermath of both Cup and European considerations. Chelsea will look to bounce back from a dour European draw as they host Sean Dyche’s perennially struggling Burnley. The tie of the weekend looks to be coming from St Mary’s as Southampton host Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool. Liverpool are in excellent form with Philippe Coutinho bursting into the forefront of their electrifying attacking line. There are a host of critical games at both ends of the league table that should help to illuminate the likely contenders for both the drop and European contention.
Swansea City’s defeat to West Brom highlighted the vast vacuum left by the absence of Wilfried Bony. Gomis just doesn’t have the presence to hold up the ball, a vital component of stringing Swansea’s possession football together. Routledge and Sigurdsson don’t have the time that they have become accustomed to and will be hoping for Manchester United’s inconsistency to continue. Louis Van Gaal’s side remain in prime position for Champions League qualification, despite their failure to capture the imagination of their demanding fans. Van Gaal has to play Rooney in a more advanced role while also finding a way to utilise the multi-dimensional Fellaini. In my opinion, Mata should always play in the number ten role, fostering a potentially dynamic partnership with Wayne Rooney. United should have too much quality for a diminishing Swansea side and are tipped to win at 19/20.
Alan Pardew’s resurrection job at Crystal Palace faces a stern test this weekend with the visit of Arsenal. Olivier Giroud scored an excellent brace in the Cup that bodes well for the London club as they push for a top four finish. Alexis Sanchez has not quite been himself since returning from injury, necessitating more consistent performances from both Ozil and Cazorla. Sanogo won’t play, as per his loan deal, which will probably result in former Arsenal man Marouane Chamakh featuring from the start. Zaha and Puncheon will be critical in ensuring that Arsenal are kept honest at the back in a game that may have intriguing permutations for the entire Champions League race. Arsenal sometimes struggle at these slightly claustrophobic venues and will face resistance from the likes of Bolasie and Zaha. I’ve got a feeling that the Crystal Palace Win/Draw Double Chance will pay out at 17/20.
Chelsea were hardly irrepressible against PSG - in fact they were thoroughly outplayed over the course of the match - but Mourinho will be pleased with the result and will probably adopt his ruthless face against Burnley this weekend. Burnley were outstanding at Old Trafford, outplaying England’s most successful side for large chunks of the match. Danny Ings has been an inspirational figurehead for the side while Arfield and Barnes continue to impress in the midfield area. Chelsea are a far more organized outfit than United and will dominate this game from start to finish. After a lacklustre European display, Chelsea will be keen to exercise their superiority and I fancy them to Win Both Halves at 27/20.
Tim Sherwood’s reign at Aston Villa got off to an encouraging start with their FA Cup triumph over Leicester City on the weekend. It makes one wonder why Randy Lerner stuck with the incessant negativity of Paul Lambert for so long. Stoke’s humiliating FA Cup exit to Blackburn was the second consecutive game that they have conceded four goals; Manchester City flexed their considerable muscle last week with an impressive away showing. Diouf has been inconsistent when deputising for Walters and Crouch while their hard-man midfield has been exposed by more exciting sides. Never underestimate the feel-good factor of hiring a new manager. Tim Sherwood should be able to galvanise a side in possession of real talent. Carlos Sanchez will be the rock while Weimann and Sinclair provide pace and creativity. Aston Villa to win at 31/20 looks a great bet.
Gus Poyet has had to weather a significant media storm after Sunderland's shock exit at the hands of Bradford City (at a rather unforgiving ground). I said it a few weeks back, there is something slightly desperate about the make-up of a side overly reliant on the abilities of Adam Johnson. The absence of Connor Wickham has not helped matters, with Danny Graham is struggling to give Jermaine Defoe able assistance. West Brom had a good victory over Swansea with Ideye’s power providing an excellent foil to the speed and guile of Berahino. Darren Fletcher has brought leadership to a youthful midfield consisting of Morrison, McManaman and Brunt, while Ben Foster and Lescott provide stability to the West Brom rear-guard. I expect Sunderland to battle against Tony Pulis’ ebullient side. Back West Brom to win at a valuable 19/10.
Hull City’s win over Villa, aside from relegating poor Paul Lambert to certain termination, came at a time of seemingly perpetual freefall. Jelavic has come through and shown the value of having a natural goal-scorer in a side beset by relegation woes. QPR will welcome the return of Charlie Austin while Bobby Zamora scored a cracking goal last week (a veritable collector’s item). This one looks like it’s going to be a tough one to call, but you can definitely expect a tight affair at the KC Stadium. Under 2.5 goals at 6/10 is the play here.
Manchester City will be immeasurably boosted by the returning Yaya Toure and Wilfried Bony, especially with Samir Nasri seemingly regaining the form that helped propel City to the title last year. Newcastle were effective at Palace, with Papiss Cisse almost inflicting defeat on his former manager Alan Pardew. Cabella and Perez are going to have to work like demons in this match, while Colback and Sissokho will need to run themselves ragged in midfield. But this game is far too crucial for City, especially with Chelsea hosting Burnley this weekend. Back the Citizens to triumph at 3/10.
After beating Arsenal and just being edged out by a resurgent Liverpool, it is safe to assume that Spurs are well poised for their assault on a top four position. Harry Kane is the current darling of the English media and will be hoping to ignite another London derby. West Ham are facing something of an injury crisis of late; Diafra Sakho and Alex Song are both doubtful for this encounter while Andy Carroll is expected to be sidelined for some time. They have acquired the services of former PSG winger Nene on a short term contract until the end of the season, no doubt an attempt to allay their mounting injury list. This game also has the added spice of the Olympic Stadium struggle to give it added depth. I feel that West Ham will be outgunned by a superior Spurs side. Back Tottenham at 15/20.
Nigel Pearson’s schizophrenic situation at Leicester requires a victory at any cost. Roberto Martinez’s position is equally fragile at Everton in the wake of the last gasp Willian goal last week, and decent cup runs will only satisfy the fervent Merseysiders for so long. Lukaku missed some glorious opportunities last week and needs to regain some confidence in front of goal. Leicester may be just the game needed to elevate the young Belgian striker’s performance. I’m tipping Everton to get the win at 15/20.
Southampton and Liverpool are two prime candidates for a top four finish this season, both sides advocating an intricate passing style that should make for a pleasing aesthetic encounter. Liverpool will likely be without out-going icon Steven Gerrard through a hamstring strain, a blow which should be offset by the excellent form of both Jordan Henderson and Philippe Coutinho. Southampton need Graziano Pelle to regain his earlier form if their top four push is to be sustained while Liverpool have the returning brilliance of Daniel Sturridge to rely on. I find it nearly impossible to call this one, but it seems likely that there will be goals on offer given the attacking tendencies of both sides. Over 2.5 goals is the tip at even money.