The exhausting international break has finally lifted, bringing a massive sigh of relief to footballing enthusiasts the world over. The Arsenal-Liverpool encounter dominates the pre-weekend billing, with equal emphasis on the top four permutations and Raheem Sterling’s contractual disputes. Liverpool seem to be their own worst enemies once again, with the sagas surrounding Sterling and Gerrard severely distracting from their top four push. Chelsea have an imminently winnable home fixture while Manchester United’s resurgence should remain unfettered as they host Villa. Elsewhere, the Tyne-Wear derby looms ominously as an acid test of Dick Advocaat managerial prowess. This weekend has the potential to shed significant light on both ends of the league spectrum.
Two weeks ago and this fixture looked to be a potentially fierce contest between two top four contenders. But Liverpool’s season has imploded dramatically, with Gerrard’s maniacal red card exacerbated by the retrospective ban facing Martin Skrtel. Add injuries to Sturridge and Lallana to the mix, plus the additional distraction of Raheem Sterling’s contractual hiccups and you have a fairly potent cocktail for disaster. Arsenal have looked imperious of late, with Olivier Giroud slowly establishing himself as a world-class striker. Arsenal should be far too good for a rag-tag Liverpool unit. Back the Gunners at 8/10.
You almost can’t help but feel for the increasingly forlorn figure of Chris Ramsey. QPR just look dead on their feet, seemingly unable to motivate themselves for a survival scrap. Their away form has taken on biblically poor proportions, with Charlie Austin’s presence in the top goal scoring charts serving as an idiosyncratic quirk in an otherwise poor campaign. West Brom should be fairly safe by now, as Tony Pulis once again displays his ability to guide mediocre clubs to safety. QPR’s plug should finally be pulled as Berahino runs their ageing defence ragged. West Brom to win at 7/10.
This is an interesting one. Hull City were actually rather excellent against Chelsea, forcing Courtois to perform feats of heroism to keep the would-be champions in the game. Swansea have actually surprised many with a steely self-belief that seems to emanate directly from manager Garry Monk. Jonjo Shelvey and Gylfi Sigurdsson have formed an excellent midfield partnership that should boss possession this weekend. While I don’t predict plain sailing, I expect Swansea’s depth in quality to see them to a home win at 9/10.
A month is like a lifetime in football. The Louis Van Gaal experiment seems to have reaped some fruition, with the stern Dutchman finally developing some consistency - and logic - in selection. Rooney is thriving up front while Juan Mata is garnering an aura and the admiration of the Manchester United massive. Aston Villa welcome back the services of Gabby Agbonlahor this weekend, which should aid them in what will surely be a counterattacking strategy employed by Sherwood. But this one should prove a step too far for Villa, as United look like the form team in the league at this point. Back Manchester United at 3/10.
Leicester City’s hopes for survival are hanging by the thinnest possible thread. They are fiercely competitive but just seem to lack the know-how to see a game through. West Ham have actually shown some decent character of late in the wake of a disappointing slide down the table post-Christmas. Schlupp’s pace will prove problematic for the Hammers but I anticipate a lack of penetration on the part of the Foxes. West Ham will set up solidly and should be able to grind out some form of result. This should make for a low scoring encounter as Big Sam looks to pinch a valuable point on the road. Under 2.5 goals is the tip at 19/20.
As far as I’m concerned, Ronald Koeman gets the nod for manager of the season. Following a mass Southampton squad exodus and operating under fairly stringent economic realities, Koeman has managed to synthesize a potent collective unit that has remained surprisingly resolute in their bid for European football. Everton have won a few consecutive matches but still don’t strike me as a particularly strong side. Their weakness lies in the heart of midfield, with the likes of Gibson and Osman often marginalized by more robust athletes. This is where Schneiderlin and Wanyama should get a fair amount of joy, but can the misfiring Pelle finally end his massive goal drought? While I fancy Southampton at a cursory glance, perhaps better value could be found in predicting a blank on one of the sides. Southampton have the meanest defence in the league while Everton have been largely underwhelming. Take Both Teams to Score - No - at 17/20.
Chelsea’s first half performance against Hull City suggested that the Champions elect have a few butterflies flying around their collective West London stomach. Diego Costa’s fitness remains a slight issue for Mourinho, while Stoke City seem fairly resigned to a highly respectable mid-table finish. This should play rather nicely into Chelsea’s hands, allowing for a slightly more adventurous approach from the perennially dogmatic Portuguese manager. Look for Hazard to punish the somewhat laborious Stoke defence. Chelsea to win both halves on the halftime-fulltime double at 15/20.
Burnley’s home results from this moment on are going to play a huge role in determining whether they will remain a Premier League team next season. Boyd has become a prominent figure in recent weeks, lessening the dependency that Burnley have on the exalted figure of Danny Ings. Spurs were rather fortunate against Leicester City, with Harry Kane scoring one of the ugliest hat-tricks you are ever likely to see. Their Champions League assault has not been completely derailed yet, but I would hazard to guess that this sticky post-international away fixture will see to all that. Burnley to win at 23/10 with an alarming degree of comfort.
Doesn’t it always seem that the managerial maelstrom at Sunderland culminates in this huge Tyne-Wear derby at this stage of the season? Who could possibly forget Paolo Di Canio's ridiculous histrionics in that 3-0 victory a few years back? Dick Advocaat’s prospects, however, seem far bleaker in comparison. The combination of a misfiring strike force and ageing back four has seen Sunderland become potentially the worst active side in the league. Newcastle have not been great but should be able to grind out an away result in a fixture that has been surprisingly difficult for them in recent years. Take Newcastle to win or draw on the Double Chance at 5/10.
Alan Pardew’s Crystal Palace have been a veritable breath of fresh air in recent times, with Zaha and Bolasie’s dynamic wing play the stand-out feature in Pardew’s rejuvenated side. Manchester City are barely keeping their heads above water in the title race, especially after their last away defeat to relegation battlers Burnley. I think that this weekend will see the end of City’s stuttering title defence. Zabaleta and Kolarov have looked laboured of late and should be exploited by Palace’s wingers. Take the upset at 38/10.