Chelsea’s pragmatic waltz towards championship glory takes away slightly from the glamour of this weekend’s fixtures. There is still a tentative Champions League battle boiling while the more immediately pertinent issue at stake is the final relegation spot. Hull’s fixture with Burnley should have been the proverbial six-pointer, but Burnley’s untimely demise has probably made this more important for Steve Bruce’s side. Sunderland and Villa both have winnable fixtures while Newcastle’s agonising run of form will need to turn when they take on West Brom at home. So to Chelsea the spoils, but there is still much to play for in the Barclays Premier League.
Although Everton’s defeat at the weekend was something of a surprise to me, the manner in which it came was not. Roberto Martinez has had a tendency to underestimate the weaker teams in the league, trusting his side’s ability to outmanoeuvre teams whilst embracing an open game plan. Their victory over United was built on a solid defensive display that sought to hit United on the counterattack. They tend to drift too far away from that mantra when playing so-called lesser sides. Sunderland’s victory over Southampton was extremely fortuitous and I expect Goodison Park to galvanise the Everton players this weekend. Aaron Lennon will terrorise the dormant Sunderland defence. Back the Toffees at 15/20.
Tim Sherwood’s survival prospects will depend largely on how they fare in this winnable fixture. Aston Villa picked up a good win at the weekend, the problem is that everyone else also did. West Ham - safe in the doldrums of mid-table limbo - will find it hard to match the tempo of a high-octane, counterattacking Villa, especially with Jack Grealish’s infectious enthusiasm. Tim Sherwood’s side are lucky that there are some really poor sides competing with them for that last relegation spot. I’m taking Villa to win at 9/10.
Hull City. Sean Dyche would probably like to believe that it is similarly important for his club, but even the most die-hard Burnley fan would have to concede that their race is run. Hull’s last two games are imposing fixtures against Spurs and Manchester United, so you would have to think that maximum points are a necessity here. Tom Huddlestone’s inept performance against Arsenal typified the quality of the Arsenal midfield. He will be afforded more time against Hull and should be able to dictate proceedings. I feel that Hull should win, but perhaps the safer bet is to put your money on little goal-scoring pyrotechnics. Under 2.5 goals is the tip at 6/10.
Nigel Pearson’s Leicester side summarily dispatched of John Carver’s hapless Newcastle at the weekend, extending their inconceivable resurgence at this pivotal stage of the season. Southampton, perhaps finally cottoning on to the fact that they will miss out on Europe, have been slightly anaemic in recent weeks. Leicester’s revival should give them the psychological edge in this game, as Southampton’s attention already turns to how they can build on their team for next season. Leicester to win or draw on the Double Chance at 4/10.
Newcastle’s eighth loss in a row was disturbing for a litany of reasons. Cisse’s absence has been critical; he is the only Newcastle player with scoring capability. The two red cards were direct manifestations of their poor work ethic. West Brom must have been tickled pink by their victory at Old Trafford, especially Darren Fletcher upon his return to the Red Devils. West Brom are perfectly set up to counterattack and should provide gigantic problems for a Newcastle side beset by suspension, lethargy and internal strife. West Brom to win at 18/10 is the bet.
Pochettino is going to have to go on a really successful recruitment drive this season in order to get closer to Champions League qualification next season. Tottenham need a strong central defender as well as some more bite in midfield. Paulinho looks unsettled while Lamela and Chadli play in brief bursts. Stoke will be pleased with their season and will go into this match eager to reward their fans for yet another successful Premier League campaign. I expect Stoke’s physicality to unsettle Mason and Eriksen, in a game that could very well produce a red card. I’m taking Stoke for the home win at 18/10.
Alan Pardew will have been pleased with the manner in which Crystal Palace made Chelsea work for their title on Sunday. Though they never offered too much in the way of attack, they frustrated the Chelsea attack with a commendable rear-guard in the wake of recent poor performances. Manchester United’s third loss in a row was a real head scratcher. They enjoyed a record 80% share of the possession, yet were unable to create too many clear-cut opportunities. United’s team seem to play in a haphazard, freestyle manner in which the players are unsure of their specific role in the team. Contrast that with champions Chelsea, where every player’s specific role is clearly demarcated and understood. I think United may stop the rot here, despite lacking any fluency. Still, the Double Chance seems the correct market with United to win or draw at 2/9.
QPR’s season has been a painful one to behold. To have a striker in contention for the Golden Boot for much of the season but still be on the brink of relegation, something has gone horribly wrong at QPR. They have too many formerly good players on currently good wages, which is a recipe for complacency in any sport. Manchester City’s post-season soul searching may have already begun, but they should have too much for a dejected QPR side. I expect Sergio Aguero to underline his status as the best striker in the league and help City to a comfortable win on the halftime-fulltime double at 6/10.
The enmity between these two huge clubs would not have been diffused by Diego Costa’s furious bout of stamping earlier this season, or the lingering memory of Steven Gerrard’s ill-fated slip last season. I expect Jose Mourinho to take this game very seriously while Rodgers still desperately clings to the prospect of Champions League football for Liverpool. There are those out there who have been quick to criticise the pedestrian nature in which Chelsea crossed the line, seemingly ignorant of the way in which they dismantled opposition in the first part of the season. With the title pressure alleviated, I believe we shall see a far more expansive Chelsea against the Reds this weekend. Chelsea to win an enthralling encounter at 21/20.
Arsenal’s Theo Walcott rather curiously proclaimed that Arsenal have been the best team in Europe since the start of the year. While Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus and Real Madrid may have certain objections to such a comment, you can understand what the alienated winger was getting at (aside from trying to chum up to his manager of course). Jack Wilshere’s return to fitness has only strengthened a side playing with excellent fluidity and self-belief. Swansea have been fantastic, extolling similar footballing virtues to Wenger’s side. But their diet version of tiki taka should be exposed by a rampant Arsenal side. I’m taking Arsenal to lead both halves on the halftime-fulltime double at 8/10.