The Premier League features a slightly truncated fixture list this week with FA Cup semi-finals in action. This actually gives Chelsea the opportunity to firmly grasp the reins of their title destiny. Manchester United will however provide a stern test for a Chelsea side relying more on grit than style at present. Perhaps of even more pertinence this weekend is the truly epic fight against relegation. I gave Leicester no chance a few weeks ago, consigning them to that oh-so-easy premature media grave. Yet consecutive wins has thrown the entire relegation battle wide open. With Sunderland, Hull and QPR out of action this weekend, Burnley have the opportunity to really champion their survival prospects as they visit an out of sorts Everton. So despite the diminished amount of fixtures there should be no shortage of intrigue as the season approaches its climax.
Stoke City have consolidated a mid-table finish in the metronomic manner in which they have become well accustomed. Their rise and ultimate entrenchment in the Premier League table should serve as the blueprint for any side entering the Premier League with ambitions of maintaining their lofty status. Southampton’s European ambitions remain alive with others slipping around them on a consistent basis. Graziano Pelle scored for the first time in fifteen games, a most welcome boost for a side slightly lacking in firepower in the last few months. Take the Saints to pick up the win on the road at 12/10.
You can’t help but admire the gumption shown by both Nigel Pearson and his industrious group of Leicester players. Their desperation for points has necessitated a change in outlook for Pearson, with him now opting to play Nugent, Vardy and Ulloa together. Although they appear quite open, their danger in attack has increased exponentially. Gary Monk is a personal pick for unsung coach of the year. Everyone loved Michael Laudrup and it was never going to be easy to follow in his footsteps, especially when the totemic presence of Wilfried Bony was lost to Swansea. Gomis has stepped up to the plate impressively while Jonjo Shelvey seems to be relishing in the consistent selection and faith shown in him. I can’t predict which way this one will go, one thing is that it will be open as Leicester fight to avoid the drop. Over 2.5 goals is the tip at 17/20.
Everton were once again underwhelming against Swansea City, leaving many fans at something of a psychological crossroads with Roberto Martinez. On one hand, he seems fantastically knowledgeable about the game and wants to play the game with a swagger celebrated and valorised in the current footballing climate. On the other hand, his tactics have left Everton more open and see them languishing in the second half of the table. They have developed a soft centre that Sean Dyche’s Burnley side will be desperate to exploit. Danny Ings and George Boyd were unable to effect themselves upon an imperious Arsenal side but will feel more confident with this trip to stuttering Everton. I honestly feel that Burnley’s drive and desire will be too much for a lightweight Everton side. Lukaku’s return from injury will not be enough to prevent a possibly dangerous defeat for Martinez. Pick up Burnley at a valuable 38/10.
It will be interesting to see exactly what kind of reception working class hero Tony Pulis receives upon his return to his former employers. Many of the supporters will no doubt feel indebted to him for the resurrection job he pulled off last season, but there are many who feel that he showed little loyalty in abandoning the club just prior to the start of this campaign. Alan Pardew’s Crystal Palace side have been nothing short of sensational, exhibiting European form since his arrival. He has injected confidence in the side, utilising Zaha and Bolaise in more conventional winger positions whilst Murray’s return to the side has supplemented their lack of goals. West Brom seem to be heading the other direction, perhaps growing complacent in their pre-conceived notions of survival. Berahino has been relatively quiet while Fletcher and Morrison look a bit leggy in the midfield. West Brom rely on quick counterattacks but come up against an extremely potent counterattacking unit this weekend. Palace to win at 9/10 is the tip.
The biggie of the weekend pits would-be champions Chelsea against the perennial Premier League force that is Manchester United. Chelsea have hardly been fluent of late and have had to grind out results in almost masochistic fashion. United, on the other hand, have been serene in recent times, reverting back to a style that seeks to utilise the width of the pitch. Ashley Young has been a player reborn while Antonio Valencia’s overlapping runs on the right hand side have afforded space for the elusive figure that is Juan Mata. Chelsea will be an altogether different proposition to an indifferent Liverpool or tepid Spurs. Chelsea should be more physically capable of dealing with Fellaini while Hazard’s presence will restrict the buccaneering running of Antonio Valencia. I still feel that United’s defence is highly penetrable, which should encourage the surgically precise passing of Cesc Fabregas. Chelsea to win a tight fought contest at 19/20 and perhaps in the process virtually ensure the league title goes back to the Bridge.
There is a lot of soul searching to be done at Manchester City now that their title defence is over. The acquisitions made in the summer were clearly not up to scratch while some of the senior performers have been horribly inconsistent this season. Yaya Toure, despite still being a world-class midfielder, may have to be ushered out of the door in favour of a rejuvenated midfield. Keeping Aguero and Silva will be key while Wilfried Bony needs more game-time to assimilate into the side. West Ham have been treading water in the wake of a slightly deflating late-season collapse that saw their grand European dreams dashed. Andy Carroll’s injury opera has come to define a season that may just be Big Sam’s last in charge of the Hammers. I’m feeling there is a chance for some City retribution this weekend, especially with the prospect of a mammoth end of season cleanout looking likely; players will be looking to ingratiate themselves to prospective buyers with a few extravagant performances in ultimately meaningless games. Take City on the halftime-fulltime double at 13/20.
There is strong speculation that a section of the so-called Geordie Nation will be boycotting this match in favour of a nearby protest against the policies of the club. While I generally despise such acts of wilful disloyalty towards one’s club, you cannot help but feel a degree of sympathy for Newcastle fans. Mike Ashley seems more interested in generating profit than returning the club to the upper echelons of the league, regularly disposing of star players (Carroll and Cabaye) and failing to address the loss. Spurs look devitalised of late but will no doubt be relishing the opportunity to take on this bunch. To a man this Newcastle side looks demotivated and lacklustre, perhaps comfortable in knowing that the hapless John Carver will bear the brunt of the scorn offloaded by their disgruntled fans. I’m taking Spurs to win at 12/10 purely because I can’t see Newcastle overcoming the negativity surrounding the side.