With Champions League concerns well and truly over, the title race has now become the overwhelming priority for all of the top clubs. Chelsea’s recent blip in form has invited talk of an exploded title race, with Arsenal inspiring particular attention from one Jose Mourinho. My personal opinion is that Chelsea’s lead is too big, especially considering the amount of mammoth games to come; points will be dropped by all sides. Just look at Sunday’s seismic Liverpool-United clash. This is a fixture that in recent seasons has battled for some of its relevance, with both Liverpool and United grappling for sparks of their former glory. This season, however, United and Liverpool are both seemingly ascendant beasts, which should make Sunday’s clash at Anfield an absolute humdinger. City simply have to win at home to West Brom while Chelsea face another test of their title credibility away to Hull. All in all this seems like a fascinating week to be a Premier League admirer.
Manchester City were put away with barely a whimper by the almost sadistic Barcelona passing game on Wednesday and no doubt that match will have left a physical strain on Pellegrini’s already beleaguered squad. West Brom picked up a hard fought victory over Stoke that highlighted the no-fuss football championed by Tony Pulis. I think that the Champions League hangover will definitely exert itself on this encounter, especially considering the industry of the West Brom midfield. Fletcher has brought immeasurable experience to a part of the field that lacked leadership for much of the season. Although this tip may seem a bit crazy, there is a healthy logic that underlines it. Chasing Berahino all day will be tough for a side whose entire season has practically dismantled in the space of two weeks. Take West Brom to win or draw on the Double Chance at a valuable 19/10.
Even in his wildest dreams, Tim Sherwood could not have envisaged the hurting Aston Villa would inflict on a similarly afflicted Sunderland last week. Christian Benteke and Gabby Agbonlahor looked five years younger while Fabian Delph continues to grow into a monumental midfield figurehead. He has freed the side up from the clearly restrictive policies implemented by Lambert. Swansea paid the price on Monday for not capitalising on their utter first half dominance. They bossed Liverpool around, with Jonjo Shelvey and Gylfi Sigurdsson dominating the initial midfield battle. Swansea are relatively secure in their mid-table position while Villa are still fighting for their top flight status. This leads me to back Villa to grab a narrow victory at 29/20.
Newcastle were awful against Everton and have to endure the added burden of having Fabrizio Coloccini banned for this fixture following a crazy two-footed lunge. John Carver is trying his best in the wake of Pardew’s departure, trying to fashion results from a fairly rag-tag group of players. In Cisse they do possess a reliable goalscorer while Sissokho is the undisputed heartbeat of the midfield. Arsenal were magnificent in Monaco, painting a disturbing portrait of just how bad that first leg loss was. Santi Cazorla has replaced Alexis Sanchez as the fulcrum of their attack while Olivier Giroud continues to shine on the domestic front with his beguiling control and power. The Gunners to pick up the win at 6/10.
Southampton dug in at Chelsea to produce a performance of somewhat surprising rigidity. Mane was influential going forward, combining well with Tadic as Graziano Pelle battles to recreate his early season form. That goal from Boyd has helped resurrect a slightly failing belief at Burnley that this league is where they belong. This match should offer an interesting contrast of styles, pitting Southampton’s possession based football squarely against the counterattacking impulses deployed at Burnley. I have the feeling that the contrasting styles of the two sides could make for an open spectacle that should lead to multiple goalscoring opportunities. Take Over 2.5 goals at 9/10.
Crystal Palace were impressive last weekend with Wilfried Zaha and Bolasie absolutely crucifying the QPR full-backs. While lacking a true out-and-out goalscorer, Palace manage to share the goals by committee in a far more open system under Alan Pardew. Stoke have basically got to the point of the season where there is not too much left to play for. The European places are probably beyond them while they are far away from any possible relegation concerns. This should make for a tight encounter that perhaps won’t bring out the absolute best in either set of players. I have the feeling that we are going to witness a blank in one of the side’s columns this weekend, but I’m not quite sure which. Both Teams to Score - No - is the tip at 7/10.
The defeat at United practically knocked Spurs out of top four contention. It wasn’t just the matter of lost points, it was the evident divide in quality that accentuated the amount of work Pochettino still has ahead of him. Harry Kane has become too heavily relied on while players such as Lamela and Bentaleb consistently underperform. Similarly, Leicester’s result at the weekend also reverberated with meaning; they will be relegated this season. At home to Hull - perpetually devastated by injury and down to ten men in the seventieth minute - you have to get all three points. They just don’t score enough goals, as simple as that. They may have the chance to pinch something this weekend however, with Spurs probably still reeling from last weekend’s defeat. But the Double Chance is at such poor value I’m forced to take Spurs on the outright at 11/20.
West Ham’s run of recent form has left a slightly sour taste in the mouth, especially in the wake of what was such a promising start to the season. I wonder what Russell Brand would have to say now? However tough Big Sam might have it, try and imagine what Dick Advocaat has inherited. I have long predicted the demise of Sunderland, whose side is just overrun with mediocrity. You can’t have Wes Brown and John O’Shea in the center of your defence in the Premier League. There is just too much pace. Cattermole, while industrious and combative, is similarly afflicted in the heart of the midfield. Poyet was tactically naïve, often playing out-and-out strikers, Wickham and Fletcher, in wide areas of the pitch, inviting teams to dominate the midfield. I can’t foresee a glorious debut for the Dutchman here. West Ham to win at 15/20.
That 3-0 defeat to Manchester United was the last time that Liverpool lost in the Barclays Premier League. Since then, Liverpool have been the form side in the league, managing to dominate some games whilst assiduously grinding out other results. Philippe Coutinho and Jordan Henderson have been critical in their revival, heralding a forthcoming era without working-class hero Steven Gerrard. Louis Van Gaal’s trial and error approach to team selection finally paid dividends last weekend against Tottenham. Personally, I would always play the trio of Rooney, Fellaini and Juan Mata. Mata is the creative spark of the side while Fellaini offers alternative playing strategies as the game unfolds. How Januzaj was chosen ahead of both players so often will forever remain a mystery to me. This should be an absolute cracker with two form sides going tooth and nail. I’m truly unsure as to which side will prevail but I’m fairly certain that entertainment will come out on top. Over 2.5 Goals at 9/10 should make for a solid bet.
Chelsea’s exploits in Europe never seemed to hamper them too much as they put in a decent display against Southampton. It is rather miraculous that they could not find the second, with Southampton’s point built partly on stout defence and blind luck. Steve Bruce’s Hull side are going to desperately miss the services of Tom Huddlestone, especially in a game which requires midfield stability and a calming influence. Jake Livermore is going to have to step up to the plate while N’Doye is going to be entrusted with the lone striker role. Chelsea should benefit from Huddlestone’s absence and dictate the pace of the game. Back the Blues at 9/20.
QPR’s fairly desperate season looks almost doomed in the wake of a flat, lifeless performance against Palace. Matt Phillips’ rapier-like strike was scant consolation following such a morbid display of footballing ‘prowess’, and was likely the result of a season’s pent-up frustration. Everton won their first game immediately following European success, indicating that Martinez seems to be finally finding a balance between both concerns. I think this may be the weekend that finally relegates QPR. The Toffees are available at 11/10. Get on.