The intrusion of the FA Cup means that there is a hectic week in the Premier League with a double round in the space of four days. Those sides that did the sensible thing and exited the Cup in the third round will have had a rest and likely be in better shape than those who stupidly won and progressed. With the season almost two thirds of the way through these next two games are crucial to team’s aspirations whether they be of glory or of avoiding ignominy. Three big questions that will be answered this week will be 1. Can Arsenal get their title charge back on track or are they the same old soft Arsenal of recent seasons? 2. Will Leicester continue to show their title credentials and finally be taken seriously rather than a sideshow? 3. Have Chelsea turned the corner or is there still a soft underbelly? For my thoughts on this and more read on…
Arsenal v Southampton
08:45am Wednesday 3 February OD
Gunners fans are beginning to get that old familiar choking feeling. After looking like the best equipped side to win the title for much of the season they have started to falter once again. Without a win for three games and coming off a loss to bitter rivals Chelsea, Arsenal will be desperate to get their title charge back on track. With the memory of a 4-0 loss at Southampton still fresh in their minds this game also offers the chance for retribution. The return of Alexis Sanchez from injury is a huge boost but the long-awaited return to league action of Tomas Rosicky will have to wait as he pulled up lame after coming on as a substitute in their FA Cup win over Burnley. Southampton on the other hand seem to have turned their season around and come into this fixture on the back of three straight wins including a 1-0 effort at Old Trafford last time out. They kept a clean sheet in all three of those games. The Saints stocks are boosted by new signing Charlie Austin who scored the winner at Old Trafford on his debut, but there is still an injury cloud hanging over Graziano Pelle who may miss out. Another doubt is Victor Wanyama who has asked for a move away from St Mary’s and may be left out of the squad. It is 29 years since the Saints won away at Arsenal and with the home side also desperate to keep in touch at the top it could be another fruitless trip this time.
One to Watch: Alexis Sanchez. Looked good against Burnley and with a run under his belt should only improve. His return could be just the catalyst Arsenal need to fire their title-charge back up.
Leicester City v Liverpool
08:45am Wednesday 3 February OD24
It is undoubtedly time to start treating Leicester as legitimate title contenders and judge them on their form this season rather than the average rabble they have been for much of their history. They have gone five games without defeat since their loss in the reverse fixture at Anfield and have lost just twice all season. Their solitary loss at home is the lowest in the league and they are deservedly three points clear at the top of the table. Although their free-scoring has slowed somewhat, their 3-0 win over a more than decent Stoke outfit might be a sign of it returning. Jeffrey Schlupp is their only significant injury and having had the FA Cup weekend off they should be in top shape for this one. Liverpool somehow managed to come away from Norwich with a win but still look a long way off a side that Jurgen Klopp can be proud of. They are also burdened with an onerous fixture list and are in danger of running out of gas. This game will be their fifth in the last 14 days involving three competitions. With the Europa League also on the horizon there will be much juggling for Klopp as he tries to manage his already injury-ravaged squad. Star of the season so far, Philippe Coutinho, is still injured but skipper Jordan Henderson may return. Leicester have not won any of the last seven meetings but with their confidence high and Liverpool buried under a pile of fixtures they could well be on the positive side of the ledger this time around.
One to Watch: The Leicester defence. Whilst the front line has captured much of the headlines the defence has stepped up in recent weeks. Just one goal conceded in their last five league games has helped Leicester counter-act the effect of their goal-tally slowing down.
Norwich City v Tottenham Hotspur
08:45am Wednesday 3 February OD
Norwich would have been rightfully distraught after their 5-4 home loss to Liverpool. Leading 3-1 then going behind only to equalise in injury time, a point looked to have been secured until Adam Lallana put them to the sword with almost the last kick of the game. The loss made it three straight for Norwich (in which they conceded 11 goals) and sees them just one place and two points above the bottom three. Their lack of an FA Cup game could have been a bonus and given them time to re-group before getting back down to the business of retaining Premier League status. Gary O’Neill misses the game through suspension and Andre Wisdom is unavailable to play against his parent club. Spurs bounced back from their home loss to Leicester with convincing wins over Sunderland and Palace. Their form has been reasonably consistent this season and sitting just five points off the top of the table they are still outside contenders for the title. Travel does not seem to affect them as they have lost just the one game away from White Hart Lane. With seven goals in their last two league games and another six in two FA Cup matches, they are a constant threat at the pointed end. Jan Vertonghen is out with injury and is likely to be replaced by Austrian Kevin Wimmer. On current form this is a game Spurs should win but the Canaries managed to take the three points from the fixture last season and if they have recovered from their Liverpool heartbreak could sneak a point here.
One to Watch: Steven Naismith. I know I have mentioned him before but I really rate this hard-working Sweaty Sock (Jock). Scored last week against Liverpool and looks most likely again this week.
Sunderland v Manchester City
08:45am Wednesday 3 February OD
On the face of it Sunderland’s recent form looks above average with just one loss in their last four games, two of them wins. Those wins however came against strugglers Aston Villa and Swansea and were not enough to lift them out of the bottom three. They currently sit 19th and four points away from where they need to be come the season’s end. The man with the head of a hippopotamus, Sam Allardyce, has made moves to lift his side by splashing out in the transfer market and bringing in five new players. Whether they can adapt to the league and blend into the team remains to be seen but at least the board have backed their manager when it matters. Two players who won’t be available are Younes Kaboul and Sebastian Larsson who are still recovering from injury. Whilst the Black Cats defence has been reasonably stingy at home, conceding just 12 goals in 11 games, they have won just three times at the Stadium of Light, losing five. Manchester City are unbeaten in their last six league games and have also progressed to the fifth round of the FA Cup and the league cup final. They have also started to hit the back of the net with increasing regularity, scoring 13 goals in their last four games in all competitions. Sergio Aguero seems to have shaken off all his injury concerns and looks back to his best which is not good news for Sunderland. Whilst the injury to Kevin De Bruyne is a massive blow it is the continuing absence of skipper Vincent Kompany that looms as the biggest threat to their title charge. Whilst rampant at home they are not quite as dominant on their travels with a four win, four draw, three loss record. City have won the last three league meetings and scored 11 goals along the way. I do not expect a blow-out but with City hitting their straps I would be surprised if the Black Cats picked up anything out of this one.
One to Watch: Patrick Van Aanholt. Looks the class act in this Sunderland side and has popped up with goals in his last two games.
West Ham United v Aston Villa
08:45am Wednesday 3 February OD
Despite some key injuries the Hammers are still managing to pick up results and are a remarkable sixth on the table. They have lost just one of their last ten league games and put in a top effort in their 2-2 draw with Manchester City last time out. Dimitri Payet continues to be the standout with a passing ability that was last seen at West Ham when Trevor Brooking ruled the roost. Manager Slaven Bilic has also impressed with his positive approach and willingness not only to take responsibility but to make changes when necessary. Striking stocks are limited with Diafra Sakho and Andy Carroll still injured but on the plus side, Enner Valencia seems to have found his mojo. Defenders Carl Jenkinson and James Tomkins look likely to be absent through injury opening the door for Sam Byram who impressed on his debut against Man City. Villa are unbeaten in their last three league games but still look like they are treading water at best. Goals are a problem, failing to score more than one since their 3-2 home loss to Watford last November. Manager Remi Garde has been desperately trying to strengthen his squad but has so far been frustrated in his efforts. Further frustration is there in the form of Charles N’Zogbia. With no future at Villa he has decided not to take a transfer preferring to sit on his backside and pick up 63,000 pounds a week until his contract expires at the end of the season. Villa will be desperate and are guaranteed to put up a fight but having not won away since day one of the season and with the Hammers not having lost at home since August a point may be the best they can hope for. I am hoping for them to get one less than that.
One to Watch: Sam Byram. The former Leeds United youngster looked promising in his debut v Manchester City and if he can back that up could have a bright future in the Premier League.
Crystal Palace v Bournemouth
00:00am Wednesday 3 February OD
Palace’s home loss to Spurs was their fourth consecutive defeat and made it six games without a win in the league. In that run they have scored just one goal so something is obviously not quite right at Selhurst Park. Alan Pardew sides tend to be either feast or famine and it must be a concern that the famine period looks to be the current vogue. Home has not been where the points are for Palace this season as they have lost six times already at their gaff. The continued absence of Yannick Bolasie has not helped and they will be further hampered by the injury to Yohan Cabaye who has been their major creative force. Connor Wickham will also be absent through suspension after being found guilty of elbowing Spurs’ defender Jan Vertonghen. Bournemouth’s season continues to be a bit of a roller-coaster but considering their injury issues and lack of resources, plus lack of Premier League experience, they should be happy with their efforts. Wins against Manchester United and Chelsea are not to be sniffed at and they have attempted to play football even when things are going against them. New signing Benik Afobe has already made his mark scoring in his last two outings. The hard-working Harry Arter has impressed as has Junior Stanislas but the latter will miss this game through injury. Strangely the reverse fixture earlier this season was the first time these two sides have met in a competitive match. It ended 0-0 and I wouldn’t be surprised if that score-line was mirrored here.
One to Watch: The fans. One of the loudest set of fans in the Premier League it will be interesting to see if their team’s slump has an effect on them.
Manchester United v Stoke City
09:00am Wednesday 3 February OD24
It was rather amusing to see the reaction of many Man Utd fans after their side’s 3-1 FA Cup win at Derby. The joy of winning more than tempered by the realisation that the result meant an extension of Van Gaal’s reign at Old Trafford. Despite MVG’s obvious failings (which only he fails to acknowledge) his side sit fifth on the table and are in the last 16 of the FA Cup. Perhaps the statistics hide the true merit of the side. Their win at Anfield was a bit of a smash-and-grab effort and was followed by an awful effort at home against Southampton which saw them go down 1-0. A major plus is the return to goal-scoring form of Wayne Rooney. Five goals in his last five games in all competitions has seen him close in on the legendary Bobby Charlton’s all-time Manchester United scoring record. The back four that turns out will be a bit of a mish-mash considering at least five top-line defenders are out of action, joining Bastian Schweinsteiger on the sidelines. Stoke looked to have turned their season around and had lifted themselves up to seventh but have dropped to ninth after a draw with Arsenal and a big loss to Leicester. Considering the lofty status of that opposition one can give the Potters a bit of leeway but if you add in the exit from both Cup competitions then there may be cause for concern. Stoke will be without inspirational skipper Ryan Shawcross but hope to have Austrian livewire Marko Arnautovic available. Whilst the Potters have lost just one of the last four against United and won the reverse fixture 2-0, it is 40 years since they triumphed at Old Trafford. Expect more misery for United fans who want rid of MVG as they scrape another win.
One to Watch: Louis Van Gaal. Is it just me or does LVG indulge in regular botox? Just asking.
West Bromwich Albion v Swansea City
09:00am Wednesday 3 February OD
Although currently seven points above the drop zone, West Brom will be anxiously looking over their shoulder at the chasing pack. After gaining a worthy point at Chelsea, they were thumped at Southampton and put in a turgid display at home to Aston Villa. Failing to register a single shot on target against the bottom side in the league is definitely cause for concern. There is also the fractious issue of Saido Berahino still hanging over them. Desperate for a move but none yet secured, Berahino needs to be re-integrated and do a job for his current club. He got a run in their FA Cup game against Peterborough and scored twice although the rest of his side didn’t contribute enough as they were held to a draw. The Baggies will be sweating over the fitness of Darren Fletcher who has been their star this season. Meanwhile at the Liberty Stadium the local team were doing their version of a dying Swan. Confidence was low, points were scarce and relegation was looming. Enter Francesco Guidolin to take the helm and back to back wins against Watford and Everton have seen indications that the Swan may yet live. The cards are being shuffled by Guidolin with Jonjo Shelvey being sold to Newcastle and Bafetembi Gomis a possibility to go the same way. In comes Italian striker Alberto Paloschi from Chievo. The last seven meetings between these sides have resulted in alternating wins. Although it is West Brom’s turn to win I feel their lacklustre form and the Swans mini-revival may see that sequence broken.
One to Watch: Saido Berahino. If he starts, he stays.
Everton v Newcastle United
08:45am Thursday 4 February OD
Everton have gone five games without a win in the league (albeit three of them draws) and continue to produce some exhilarating football without an end result. Their confidence would have taken a knock after getting so close to the League Cup final before getting dumped by Manchester City but they bounced back with a win in the FA Cup. Although Carlisle may not be the toughest of opposition the win would certainly have lifted Toffee spirits. Kevin Mirallas will undergo a late fitness test and his inclusion would lift the side as he has been looking sharp when given his chance. Goodison Park has not been kind to Everton this season however with five losses and just three wins. Newcastle remain trapped in the bottom three and have won just one of their last seven games. They have also been knocked out of the FA Cup (to concentrate on the league as the old saying goes). It is amazing to me how Steve McLaren still has a job considering the cut-throat nature of football management these days and the fact that he has failed to improve the side from last season. The Magpies are also poor travelers having lost eight of eleven on the road. Everton won the reverse fixture at St James’ Park and unless they have a really bad day at the office should complete the double this weekend.
One to Watch: Ross Barkley. Gets better each week and really starting to fulfill his promise. Makes and scores goals and sure to be a major presence in the England squad that goes to Euro 2016.
Watford v Chelsea
08:45am Thursday 4 February OD24
Watford’s 2-1 win over Newcastle brought to an end a run of four straight losses and leaves them 10th in the league. The Hornets continue to be the best performers among the promoted sides and have also progressed through to the fifth round of the FA Cup. The strike due of Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney remain a potent force although Deeney has not scored in the league for five games (his last goal came from the penalty spot in the reverse fixture at Stamford Bridge). Having already drawn with Chelsea earlier this season and with the losing streak now behind them they should enter this game with confidence. Chelsea are on a bit of a resurgence which has seen them fly up the table to a lofty 13th (which still leaves them four points shy of Watford). Since their loss at Leicester they have gone seven games without defeat, including a draw at Old Trafford and a win at Arsenal. They have also made it through to the last 16 of the FA Cup and are still in contention for the Champions League. The Pensioners goal-power has been boosted by the arrival of Brazilian Alexandre Pato but whether he is included in the squad remains to be seen. Word on the street is that he is carrying some excess baggage around the waistline. An intriguing tie with Watford definitely capable of getting a result but I feel Chelsea’s turnaround may give them the momentum to get across the line. Just.
One to Watch: Troy Deeney. Likes to score in the big games and will be sure to have a royal rumble with John Terry so worth keeping an eye on.
Davis TAB Bets of the Week
One set of odds that jump out are those offered in the Leicester/Liverpool game. With Leicester making every post a winner and Liverpool up and down and drowning under a heavy fixture list, I think the $2.45 for a Leicester win is great value.
Two draws also appeal with West Brom/Swansea offering $2.95 and Norwich/Tottenham @ $3.45