After the tough grind of European football comes a set of fixtures that has some real ramifications.
The teams on either side of the Tyne-Wear divide are under extreme pressure to pick up a result and avoid yet another protracted relegation battle. Chelsea host Arsenal in the obvious glamour fixture of the weekend, with both sides feeling different pressures and battling to remain consistent on multiple fronts. Chelsea had a pick-me-up midweek whilst Arsenal showed European naivety once again. The sickening injury to Luke Shaw will loom tangibly in the Southampton/Manchester United match, particularly in the wake of the electrifying form he has shown this season. This should be yet another exhilarating weekend in the Barclays Premier League.
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Saturday 19 September
Not that this encounter needs any extra savoir faire, but Chelsea’s lowly position has elevated this from a mere early season litmus test to a potentially crucial tiebreaker in the champions’ season. Arsenal’s European odyssey got off to a dreadful start in Croatia, taking some of the heat off of Chelsea going into this encounter. Mourinho has to address the holding role, where Matic has been left too long to do considerable donkey work for the side. Fabregas is not a holding player, while Mikel is not mobile enough anymore (perhaps he never has been). Arsenal’s exceptionally mobile midfielders could run riot if Mourinho does not choose the hard working Ramires. Hazard looked reinvigorated midweek and will look to get amongst an Arsenal side full of defensive errors. Forget the Community Shield, forget the log, I just feel the weight of expectation is still strangely keeping the pressure on Arsenal. If Matic and Ramires play, Chelsea will win. Back the Blues at 13/10.
Swansea City 5/4
Swansea’s defeat to Watford surprised me. Shelvey and Sigurdsson lost ground in midfield while Gomis furrowed a lonely path up front. Everton are starting to look a unified side, with players such as Galloway and Naismith punching above their weight. Lukaku and Barkley are no longer the isolated figures in attack while John Stones is just growing in stature as the weeks progress. Swansea will want to play their football but will be cautious of the midfield tenacity of Everton. McCarthy and Barry are effective at forestalling slow build-up, while Seamus Coleman is the one right full-back who can live with the speed of Jefferson Montero. Take Everton to win or draw on the Double Chance at 6/10.
Stoke City 27/20
Leicester City 19/10
It’s funny that Jack Butland is currently one of my top five players in the league, despite Stoke’s lowly log position. Hughes’ side, in a transitory haze, have forgotten the fundamentals and lost solidity defensively. The suspensions of Adam and Affalay have greatly reduced the effectiveness of Hughes’ proposed alterations. Leicester have been the fairytale thus far, playing with a pace and freedom usually reserved for sides in the upper echelon. Mahrez has resembled Lionel Messi with that cheeky shoulder drop while Jamie Vardy’s speed and determination herald the return of the everyman to the increasingly exclusive domain of Premier League football. Stoke have a depleted squad while Leicester’s tempo on the counter should see them through. Back the Foxes at 19/10.
Newcastle United 14/10
Steve McClaren’s side were shocking on Monday. Very rarely in the Premier League will you see a side go two-nil down and have as little to offer in terms of defiance. The suspension of Mitrovic has been unfortunate, while Anita and Colback are too similar in midfield. Watford’s victory at the weekend exemplified the tenacity and tactical efficiency of the new regime. This is quite a hard one to call in the wake of Monday night’s shocking Newcastle performance. Watford’s lack of firepower will meet its match in Newcastle’s lack of identity, so Under 2.5 Goals seems a likely occurrence at 13/20.
Eddie Howe’s side finally had a taste of Premier League realism with a dismal display against Norwich. They were flat, with the initial ecstasy of being in the top flight finally confronted with the harsh reality at hand. Sunderland were actually improved in their defeat to Spurs, with Defoe and Lens forming a fairly dynamic partnership up front. Jack Rodwell has provided some athleticism in midfield to counterbalance the more pugilistic tactics of Cattermole. I actually fancy Sunderland here, but first and foremost I see two defences that have leaked goals on a consistent basis this season. Be bold, and back Over 3.5 Goals at 2/1.
Aston Villa 5/4
West Brom 23/10
This Midlands battle has dire draw written all over it. Tony Pulis - bless his pragmatic, survival-orientated soul - is just not interested in playing football away from home. Tim Sherwood will want nothing more than to wipe the memory of those last thirty minutes against Leicester from the face of this earth. I expect him to tighten ship dramatically this time around, playing further into my belief that this may be a dull affair. Jack Grealish and Saido Berahino are exciting barometers for the future, but I expect this one to be largely contested in the middle of the park. Under 1.5 Goals is my valuable tip at 17/10.
Manchester City 1/4
West Ham 17/2
This one should be easy, right? Manchester City, despite a heart-breaking defeat to Juventus, should have all the momentum following a flawless start to the season. West Ham, however, have already flown in the face of expectations with away victories over both Arsenal and Liverpool. Additionally, Sergio Aguero’s injury has been exacerbated by Vincent Kompany’s, which will likely necessitate the inclusion of Nicolas Otamendi for a first Premier League start. So, City have a surprising vulnerability for a side yet to concede a goal. Payet and Moses were exhilarating while Andy Carroll’s return from injury just gives Bilic more options. I’m going back to a prediction I made successfully with the City/Watford fixture. I feel a draw in the first half, gradually leading to City dominance and a Mancunian victory by the end is on the cards. Back the Draw-Man City halftime-fulltime double at an alluring 29/10.
Sunday 20 September
Crystal Palace 28/10
This is my pick for the surprise game of the weekend. Spurs have been slowly building to a head sans Harry Kane’s goal-scoring exploits. They have looked defensively solid and now have a win under their belt that justifies their possession-based football. Palace were quite unfortunate in their last-gasp defeat to City, with their dynamic counter-attacking style liable to cause any side trouble. Sako has been immense since his arrival while Delaney and Dann have formed a stoic centre-half combination. Spurs will likely boss the possession, but with Mason probably injured and Kane misfiring, I expect Palace to be explosive on the road. I’m backing Palace to win at 28/10.
Manchester United 14/10
It’s serendipitous how these fixtures resolve themselves. Last week it was the Everton/Chelsea fixture in the wake of John Stones-gate, now it’s Southampton/United in the aftermath of Luke Shaw’s horrific leg break. United will need to shake off the sombre mood and build on their impressive win over Liverpool. Van Gaal will do well to utilise Martial sparingly in the wake of that amazing winning strike against their fierce historical rivals. Southampton were quite frankly dismal against West Brom in an early contender for damp squib of the season. Southampton’s Dusan Tadic has been a key player in these encounters of late and will look to exploit the space offered by a slightly trenchant defensive midfield at United. I know this one seems perfectly set up for Van Gaal to fail, but I don’t believe Southampton are the side they were last season. Back United at 14/10.
Norwich City 42/10
Fortress Anfield it isn’t. There seems to be a growing sense of discontent surrounding an expensively assembled Liverpool side who seem to have lost the basic blueprint. Rodgers, initially espousing a brand of Barcelona-esque tika taka football, is now utilising Christian Benteke - tremendous overhead goal notwithstanding - in an alarmingly isolated lone striker role. Norwich City were clinical at the weekend, with Wes Hoolahan providing a powder keg of energy and skill going forward. They will view this as a good time to visit Anfield, despite the horrible memories of Luis Suarez that may still resonate with the Canaries. The returning Philippe Coutinho should be able to propel Liverpool to victory at 6/10.