Chelsea’s ignominious exit from the Champions League has sent a shock wave of self-reflection throughout the collective consciousness of the Premier League. Yes, it may be the most exciting league in Europe. Yes, it may have the most fanatical fan base. But no, it is not the best league in European football, despite what the talking heads want to say about their product. Chelsea return to domestic form with what may now be a rather tricky tie against Ronald Koeman’s determined Southampton side. Manchester United play host to Spurs in what could prove a watershed moment for both clubs in the final push towards the coveted Champions League spot. Elsewhere there are a few of those proverbial six-pointers flying around, with Leicester hosting Hull and Sunderland playing host to Tim Sherwood’s Villa. So strap in everyone, this is bound to be another exciting weekend in the league with the most overinflated ego in European football.
Alan Pardew has done a fairly remarkable job since arriving at former club Crystal Palace, elevating them towards mid-table mediocrity with a slightly more expansive brand of football that utilises the talents of Jason Puncheon and Wilfried Zaha. QPR lost a titanic London derby against Spurs that epitomised their season in many ways. Their major problem is a lack of goals outside of the dependable boot of Charlie Austin. Taarabt has hardly played this season while Joey Barton’s disciplinary issues continue to hang over the club. Palace should be too strong at home for a QPR side desperately poor on the road. The home win is tipped at 15/20.
Arsenal’s cup victory over United was the perfect antidote to their dismal display against Monaco in Europe. Their midfield clicked exceptionally well, with Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil able to diffuse their trickery into specific roles. Alexis Sanchez looked less selfish while Danny Welbeck achieved some poetic justice from his former employers. West Ham’s season has begun to unravel despite a fairly stodgy showing against title-favorites Chelsea. The loss of Andy Carroll has limited their options, forcing them to adopt a more intricate style at times when they seem slightly uncomfortable applying it. Stewart Downing has also gone off the boil slightly as pressure mounts on Big Sam in the afterglow of European ambitions. I feel strongly that West Ham are there for the taking by an Arsenal side slowly starting to build some domestic momentum. Expect Olivier Giroud to be in amongst the goals as the Gunners win comfortably at the Emirates, priced up at 4/10.
You have to feel for Nigel Pearson’s Leicester side. It is hardly as though they are disgraced on a weekly basis. They just don’t have the cutting edge up front that can support their periodically resolute defense. Ulloa started the season on fire but has faded to a whimper, leaving Vardy as the only logical goal threat for the side. Hull City will mark this as a winnable away game, especially considering the fact that hugely influential midfielder Mohamed Diame could be back in contention for this encounter. This will offset the injury to Jelavic due to the impressive goal scoring capabilities of the midfield juggernaut. My heart is going for Leicester City, but I can’t help but think that Hull’s street smarts will see them through to an unlikely away victory at 26/10.
Tim Sherwood has made himself the darling of the Midlands by manufacturing back-to-back victories over fierce rivals West Brom. Christian Benteke’s stoppage time penalty last week seemed to signal renewed belief in the whole Aston Villa experiment. Fabian Delph has been a colossus in the last few games while Benteke and Agbonlahor look revitalised. Sunderland managed to fashion an ugly draw at Hull and will be hoping to profit from an extended break that hasn’t seen them play for ten days. Jermaine Defoe will be counting on his scoring touch returning while Adam Johnson remains suspended after being released on bail following allegations of sex with a minor. This one seems impossible to call but I would certainly not count on a goal fest this weekend. Under 2.5 goals is the tip at 11/20.
The messianic status assigned to one Tony Pulis will have taken a slight knock following West Brom’s consecutive defeats to Villa. The crowd incursions in the cup match only served to emphasise the powerful emotional significance of those defeats and the pressure that Pulis must be feeling going into this match. Ever the pragmatist, Pulis will look to bounce back through a solid midfield platform and the qualities of Saido Berahino. Brunt, Morrison and Fletcher all look somewhat flat of late, which may necessitate a midfield reshuffle, possibly seeing the reintroduction of Sessegnon. Stoke have experienced an excellent run of form that has seen them rise to eighth in the table. Peter Crouch and John Walters have been scoring while the midfield of Adam and Ireland has been surprisingly effective. I’m going for a bold away win at 23/10 with Stoke in a rich vein of form and West Brom feeling slightly demoralised at present.
Of all the sides embroiled in the relegation scrap, Burnley seem to be the one who stand up best to the challenge of the bigger clubs. This is probably down to their sometimes naïve attacking approach, one which allows them to hit on the counter in games where they sacrifice large chunks of possession. Ings, Barnes and Vokes break swiftly, which can sometimes ambush top sides when they are dictating the pace of the game. Manchester City, however, are a side that relies on patient build up, which should create problems for Sean Dyche’s side. City will be emboldened by Chelsea’s European slip-up and I expect them to win this encounter easily. Back the Citizens at 9/20.
Jose Mourinho was the picture of humility in his post-match press conference following the PSG fiasco. He lamented PSG’s superiority, saying that they were collectively better in every aspect on the park. The truth is that Mourinho has to shoulder large parts of the blame for Chelsea’s exit, failing to tactically capitalise on a dubious one man advantage. Southampton will feel buoyed by Chelsea’s European demise and by their own last gasp winner against Palace last week. Mane was able to forestall yet another disappointing result with a goal that just kept them in the European chase. This will not be easy for the Blues, especially if Wanyama and Tadic are able to take a leaf out of Verratti and Motta’s playbook, but I expect Chelsea to sneak through with tight victory. Back Chelsea at 11/20.
Everton’s European odyssey has definitely had a detrimental effect on their domestic campaign. They look jaded and wearisome at home, with Romelu Lukaku a shadow of the player that left Chelsea fans apoplectic upon his sale. Baines and Coleman are being pushed too far up the pitch, which is evident in Leighton Baines having the second most assists in the league this year. John Carver has done an admirable job with Newcastle, with Perez and Cisse fashioning up a decent understanding. Cabella is the player with the Hazard-factor in their side, while Sissokho is the man assigned to do the donkey work in midfield. I think that Newcastle will have the physicality to match an Everton side battling to cope with European commitments and I’m tipping them to win at a massive 34/10.
Manchester United’s cup exit against Arsenal stank of the same managerial naivety that has plagued the Van Gaal regime the whole season. Why he would choose to introduce Michael Carrick - whose movement can be described as labored at best - in the second half of that frenetic encounter remains a mystery to me. However, this is clearly the Van Gaal way, a single-minded way characterised by lunacy. Spurs will be feeling extremely confident, especially considering the fact that they beat United at Old Trafford last season. Harry Kane and Andros Townsend will look to rip through a defensive system that look perpetually desperate. This should be an open encounter with both sides favoring breathless attack over defensive solidity. Both Teams to Score is available at 13/20.
Swansea have consolidated their squad with contract extensions for both Jordi Amat and Angel Rangel. This show of confidence in Gary Monk and his club bears testament to the excellent work he has done in the afterglow of Michael Laudrup’s reign. Gomis has done surprisingly well in the wake of Bony’s departure, while both Sigurdsson and Routledge provide a consistent threat going forward. Liverpool have been nothing short of sensational in the league with Philippe Coutinho throwing his hat into the ring for player of the season. Their home cup draw with Blackburn, however, illuminated some of the cracks that still exist within the framework of Rodgers’ side. When they don’t get the early goal, Liverpool can overcommit in an attempt to force a gap where none exists, a tactic which could spell doom against Rodgers’ former club. Use some savvy and back Liverpool to win or draw on the Double Chance at 1/4.