The world of football hasn’t been that busy of late, the stories doing the rounds reflect the lack of anything of worth to be talking about. Thus it’s on with looking to consider the games this weekend.
Before that however, we have the small matter of seeing how I did in the last set of predictions. The points system operates in a simple way – three points gained for a spot on prediction, one point for just the right outcome and zero points for getting nothing.
Chelsea 2-1 Arsenal (1 point – actual score 3-1)
Crystal Palace 3-1 Sunderland (0 points – actual score 0-4)
Everton 2-1 Bournemouth (1 point – actual score 6-3)
Hull City 1-3 Liverpool (0 points – actual score 2-0)
Southampton 1-1 West Ham (0 points – actual score 1-3)
Watford 2-1 Burnley (3 points)
West Brom 1-1 Stoke City (0 points – actual score 1-0)
Tottenham 3-0 Middlesbrough (1 point – actual score 1-0)
Man City 4-0 Swansea City (1 point – actual score 2-1)
7 points is not the greatest return and a 50% return on the outcomes is only just about acceptable. You may have noticed that there was no prediction for the Leicester v Man Utd match which was an oversight on my part and so I duly accept the zero points that go with that. Which is a pity because the score could have done with me getting at least a point from that prediction. It’s not the best week of predictions.
However, there is the chance to do better by taking a look at this weekend’s fixtures. Let us have a look at what is going on.
Arsenal 3-1 Hull City: Here’s the thing. Arsenal tend to crumble when it really matters then resume their expected superiority when the chase is over. The chase is over. There was argument that the chase was over before the Watford game. There was more talk about the chase being over before the Chelsea game. Now, being twelve points behind the leaders, no matter what Wenger says, the chase is over. Apparently there’s a little issue about confirming their top four place, but seriously since when has Wenger failed on that minimum standard? Since never that’s since when. So as part of all that jazz they should return to winning ways in this home game. They should do, not because Hull City are pushovers. They played Liverpool and Man Utd in their last two games and if anyone had said they would emerge from those games unbeaten with four points they would have been committed to an institution for ongoing monitoring. Yet here they are arriving at the Emirates on a genuinely impressive run of form that could … yeah legitimately … see them emerge triumphant in their quest to play Premier League football in the 2017-18 season. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. They are still in the thick of the battle. It’s one thing going unbeaten against two heavyweights in a row, it’s a stretch of incredulity to expect them to leave this third encounter unscathed. It’s not impossible and let’s face it, it would be hilarious if that was to happen to Arsenal, but it’s just not going to happen. So there. (He says with a smirk of hope.)
Man Utd 2-1 Watford: United will know better than to take Watford for granted. Mazzari’s side are actually enjoying a decent run of form that has seen them unbeaten in their last four league fixtures winning the last two. One of those wins was away to Arsenal. That means Mourinho would be making a big mistake to take them lightly. The team from Hertfordshire can play a solid game that is high energy and frustrating to bigger opponents. United, however, are on a little mission of their own. Their unbeaten league run stretches back for months and yet they are still looking up at five clubs above them. Their fans are understandably wondering how and why. Especially as some of those sides have faltered dramatically of late, that United are still in sixth place is a sore point. It’s also part of the fuel that will motor the team onto taking this game seriously and applying due professionalism. They certainly have by far the superior squad, their selection of players is the envy of most teams in the Premier League and there is enough quality in them to make any team suffer if they are clinical. Therein lies the challenge for United especially at home where they have not been as clinical as they should and that allied with world class goalkeeping displays have meant a number of games have finished with frustrating draws. This one could go the same way if the opponents are similarly disciplined and focused more on stopping the red machine. The home team know, though, that they cannot afford to keep dropping points if they want to achieve their goal for the season.
Middlesbrough 1-3 Everton: This is the tale of two very different football teams. Middlesbrough were not guaranteed staying in the Premier League when they got promoted. Their squad did not scream the sort to be well established in the Premier League. Yet when you considered the others in their area of the division there should have been a glimmer of hope that if they play the right way and make things difficult for their opponents they could look forward to playing more Premier League football. As it’s transpiring, though, their run of form has been dire and they are not far from the drop themselves. What’s been the ongoing concern with them has been the lack of goals scored. Who knows if this was something Karanka wanted support in during the disappointing transfer window. All that is known is that they don’t look any the better to address that issue. That should be of grave concern to Boro fans. What should make that concern all the worse is that they are about to entertain a team who are on a run of games where they have won four of their last five games. Koeman is not the sort to get complacent, he’s never had the team in a position to do that. There has always been something to play for. He still sees there being something to play for with this Everton side on this run. They are five points behind a relentless United and four points ahead of a West Brom that doesn’t look in the mood to win that many games on the trot. That is to say Koeman is doing a tremendous job keeping his team motivated under such a safe position. Their entertaining game against Bournemouth would have told Koeman much of what his team is capable of both positive and negative and that will keep him on his toes in ensuring his team can get the maximum points available from the trip to Teeside.
Stoke City 2-1 Crystal Palace: The bottom of the table is fairly congested with five teams scrambling over each other in a bid to avoid the dreaded drop. One of the teams that has a squad that should not be in this scrap is Crystal Palace. Palace sacked Pardew before the transfer window and replaced him with Allardyce in a move that many applauded as the one that would see them ease out of danger. Four losses in five games was not the kind of form they had in mind. Second from bottom was not the plan going into this arrangement. Some blame the last guy for wrecking the club, to his credit Allardyce hasn’t gone down that road in terms of apportioning responsibility. Rightly so, because here is the guy much lauded for being able to turn it around fairly quickly. Small issue is, he really isn’t turning it around. The team aren’t looking that defensively solid. The team aren’t really that much of a threat up front. The team aren’t really that resilient mentally. The team aren’t really doing much worthy of thinking they can make the turnaround. Not the best time to make a trip to the Potteries. Stoke, however, are blowing a little hot and cold at the moment. They could do with a win to get back on track in their bid to finish in the top half of the table. This could be the game where they get to see some of the promise in their new guy Berahino, the defence they face would certainly appear to be generous for that to happen. That is not to say a Sam Allardyce team is just going to sit down and take it where this game is concerned. He will demand that they keep fighting until the end. It’s just that the end could still see them return to South London with nothing for their efforts.
Sunderland 2-1 Southampton: I can’t remember the last time I predicted Sunderland would win a match. I don’t even know if that has ever happened. That’s not any antagonism towards the Wearsiders. I don’t particularly find them distasteful, they have just been reliably awful throughout the season which is a good reason why they are looking up at 19 teams ahead of them. And yet here I am writing legitimately about Sunderland winning this game. That’s not a commendation about Sunderland, though. They still depend too much on Defoe for inspiration and goals. They are still far to porous at the back. Signing up a number of Everton rejects might make Moyes feel more comfortable but it’s not the recipe for success in the relegation dogfight. So it’s about their opponents. There is little that surprises me these days and Southampton’s collapse in league form of late is one of those things that has not been that surprising. It’s as though the entire club has gone on snooze mode in preparation for the League Cup final. Their performances and results have been so substandard that they have to do something to be careful to rise themselves from this or else the effort will be for nothing and there is still enough time for them to get sucked into the mess at the bottom of the table. If it was down to comparing between the two sides in their quality the Saints should go marching in to collecting three points. Yet Moyes should have enough in him and in this squad and hopefully in their goal-den saviour Defoe to snap up another three points that might prove valuable in their quest to stay up.
West Ham 2-1 West Brom: Although the Hammers are one place behind the Baggies there is a not insignificant five point gap separating the two teams. That is testament to the sterling work Pulis has done at the Hawthorns in going to great lengths to ensure not just safety but progression. Finishing in the top half of the table would definitely be classed as progression to the Midlands side. Not so much for the team playing in London. Although they recovered well from the City beating to defeat Southampton, Slaven Bilic will know that there is still much work to do to finish what has been a tumultuous season on a high. He speaks well of the squad cohesion in the light of certain transfer debacles and if they are indeed settled and the team pattern can work well, they have every chance of emerging from this tussle with the much needed victory to bridge the gap between both sides. Pulis sides are notoriously stubborn, though, and even if their away record isn’t that much to write home about, they can still prove to be tricky for those forever blowing bubbles. The progress of late since 2017 and the quality of players who are not playing towards their peak means that West Ham can look forward to this game with some optimism. Though a safer prediction would be to plum for the draw, there is something about the capacity of the home side to be a danger that particularly makes me think they can edge this close encounter.
Liverpool 1-3 Tottenham: The record of the home side in 2017 has been well documented. They are not scoring anywhere near enough goals and they are certainly not winning games. There has been reference to their capacity to get up for the big games and this would certainly fall under that category. Maybe with the week to lick their wounds and address things on the training pitch they will be better prepared for this big fixture. Perhaps with Mane nearer full fitness and the side getting back into gear the Anfield faithful will be able to cheer their heroes to a desperate and rare three points. The record of Spurs at Anfield might also be reason for further optimism. There is something about this Spurs side this season, however, that suggests that it will not be that straightforward at all. Something Pochettino has instilled in this Spurs side is a rugged ability to grind out results. They are in second place and the best placed to challenge Chelsea not because they play beautiful football, it’s because when they are playing poorly their system stands strong because of the effort of remaining tight to beat and ready to hit on the counter-attack when necessary. They seem to have matured even from last season and their unity and sense of purpose is allowing them to keep plugging away despite the feeling that hey won’t be able to last the course. Their progress has been made without fuss or fanfare very much in suiting with their manager’s approach to the game. There is strength, solidity and determination throughout their side and in Harry Kane they have one of the league’s hardest working and clinical strikers. If they come with the right frame of mind they could quite possibly exploit some of the frailties in the Liverpool side and in that way reinforce their own credentials whilst dismissing those of the Reds.
Burnley 0-3 Chelsea: Looking at the league table for Burnley fans must be such a fun exercise. They are a full nine points clear of the relegation zone. They are three points away from a top half position. They have more to look ahead for than to look behind them. That position has been established primarily because of their home record. Indeed of the 29 points they have picked up so far, 28 of them have been collected from Turf Moor. They have done tremendously well in turning it into their fortress to a large degree. They have faced top sides before at their own patch and sent them packing pointless. Now, however, they face undoubtedly their greatest challenge. It’s not that this Chelsea side play memorable fantasy football that gets the pulses racing. It’s not that this is the best first eleven to ever play in the Premier League. It is that Conte has struck solid gold with the best way to utilise this collection of players who have experience of playing winning football. The defence are stingy to say the least. The midfield is beastly to underrate them. The attack is clinical to not put a fine point on it. No one can in anyway deny that they deserve to be where they are on merit. That will pose massive problems for the Lancashire side where the onus is on them to make the moves. The Blues meanwhile can play any way they need to. They can hit on the break when under the cosh or they can impose themselves if invited. They don’t even have to slip out of second gear to manipulate teams and manage games as Arsenal discovered last week. As long as it’s football there’s a degree of hope for Burnley, but that window of opportunity won’t be open for long at all with the relentless way that this Chelsea side operate. Expect the away win.
Swansea City 3-2 Leicester: It would have been very heartening for Ranieiri to see his reserves eventually put Derby to the sword in the FA Cup on Wednesday. Extra time would not have been something he would have wanted to get the job done, but at least it was done. Perhaps one or two performances could have made him think again about who he will start with or pick in the squad for this match. What will be abundantly clear, however, is that the big guns will return for this massive encounter. The way they were easily dispatched in their last league game will be the pressing matter that the Foxes will want to fix. What is not that encouraging, however, is their away record. Even Hull City have won away from home, but for Leicester they have yet to get three points in one game away from home comforts. They will no doubt know that Paul Clement’s side will not be accommodating them at all. Swansea have the edge in this match. Three wins in their last five matches is the sort of turnaround in fortunes that now sees them level on points with the visitors. Clement will certainly be looking to make the most of this opportunity to get some more points on the board to assist in their quest for safety. This game will also be a good indication to see their ability to come back from a disappointing defeat. Sure City were expected to beat them, but to lose out in the last minute having fought valiantly can do one of two things to the mentality of the players. The first is to discourage them, but the second is what Swans will be hoping for and that’s namely taking the positives to give them hope for the next fixture to present a force that’s hard to beat and able to capitalise on the frustrations of others. This is a significant fixture in the race to safety and a draw will not be a good point for either team. In that light, although the pressure is mostly on the Foxes, it just might be the home side that rises to the occasion most to get the three points.
Bournemouth 1-4 Man City: Bournemouth can’t remember how to win a football game in the league. Their form over the last five games have been a cause for concern. Their saving grace is the fact that there are teams whose run of games have been even worse than theirs. There are enough games, however, for the side on the coast to be drawn into an unseemly scramble to stay in the Premier League. They have to pick up the winning habit quickly. They have beaten Liverpool and took Arsenal to a thrilling draw at the Vitality Stadium, their manager’s commitment to the style of football they play is admirable and has overall been effective enough. Now, however, they face a side who have begun to remember what it is to be who they are. The arrival of Gabriel Jesus into the first team of Man City has been a massive boost. The three they play in attacking positions now have a fluidity, a dynamism and a run of form that makes them massive threats going forward. They know if Spurs slip up at Anfield the win here could see them take second place and for that to happen after the level of criticism they have faced this season would be a great way to invite their critics to place their jibes in a pipe and proceed to inhale and exhale thereof. They may not be thoroughly convincing defensively just yet, but that won’t matter if their attacking and possession game gets into the rhythm. They won’t find it easy against Howe’s side, but unlike others, they should learn to take the game by the scruff of the neck and put their possession to clinical use. If they turn up in that mood, Bournemouth won’t be able to live with them.
So at least I have the ten games going on this weekend! It’s an interesting set of fixtures where I am fairly confident on improving on the points collection and getting the better than average percentage of outcomes. Of course there’s always the possibility that one or two results might turn out my way, but I am certainly hoping to get some spot on predictions to help the scoring.
Let’s see how it goes.
C. L. J. Dryden