We return to Premier League action after a week off for international fixtures, and what with England’s canter to a win against Wales and the match against Ghana, despite it’s praise as one of the best meaningless friendlies for a long time, still just being a meaningless friendly, it’s a welcome return. Everything is literally still to play for, with the title undecided and conceivably about half the clubs in the division could still be relegated. It’s going to be a fascinating end to the season, so here we go…
West Ham United vs. Manchester United (Sat, 12.45pm)
The international break probably came at the wrong time for West Ham who were finding a little form and momentum before it, and they face a tough test to get back to winning ways straight away here. They’ll have been relieved to see Scott Parker return uninjured, but slightly miffed that Wayne Rooney, for United, will be fresher than their England star because he is, in Capello’s mind, ‘more important’. United have Chelsea in the Champions League on Wednesday, and one could see Freguson resting a few – but I don’t think he will. After an international break he’ll want to use this game to get his team back together and as a warm up for Wednesday.
Birmingham City vs. Bolton Wanderers (Sat, 3pm)
What a difference a year makes for Birmingham who, despite their shock Carling Cup win, are now second from bottom of the Premier League even after a very successful season last time around. Bolton have seen their form fall from the beginning of the season too, when it looked like they might be real challengers for a Europa League spot, but a few injuries to either side have revealed a lack of requisite strength in depth. Despite their position, Brum are not a bad team, and with home advantage and the desperation to get themselves to safety, I think they’ll shade a tight affair.
Everton vs. Aston Villa (Sat, 3pm)
Villa’s woes have been well publicised, with Gerard Houllier – depending on who you believe – struggling to retain the faith of fans and players, and they’ve looked a little ragged recently. Everton’s form has generally improved as the season has worn on, but with the now seemingly traditional season-ending injuries to key players (Fellaini, Saha, maybe Arteta and Rodwell too) kicking in and a squad as small as ever, Moyes faces a real challenge to keep the points coming and to sustain a push for Europe that none would have suspected at Christmas. Even with injuries Everton have a lot of quality though, and home advantage and the unsettled nature of Villa’s position should mean a home win.
Newcastle United vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers (Sat, 3pm)
Mick McCarthy is the unfortunate manager – there’s always one – who, sat at home on Wednesday night, saw his main man pick up an injury on international duty. Kevin Doyle perhaps doesn’t get much praise or attention and doesn’t score many but whenever you see Wolves play (and especially, play well), you see how important he is to them, he’ll be a big loss. As such, and despite Newcastle having been pretty unconvicing of late, I think the Geordies enter this one as favourites. McCarthy’s side will have a lot of grit and steel though, and I’m thinking they’ll salvage a draw.
Stoke City vs. Chelsea (Sat, 3pm)
Last season’s Champions are now firm outsiders for the title after a woeful patch of form in the middle part of the season. Even splashin considerable cash in the transfer window hasn’t had a dramatic effect on their form, but they’re slowly looking more like the Chelsea of old. They’ll need to play well at the Britannia too, one of the harder places to travel to in the Premier League, even with Stoke’s overall form not too impressive. Like United, Chelsea will have an eye on the Champions League, and I’ve got a feeling they may drop two points here.
West Bromwich Albion vs. Liverpool (Sat, 3pm)
This match sees Roy Hodgson come against Liverpool, and after his well-publicised but rather short-lived failings on Merseyside, he’ll be desperate to get one over Kenny Dalglish, the man who was breathing down his neck during his entire tenure at Anfield and can’t have made life easy for him. The Baggies are doing OK too, with Hodgson unbeaten since he took over, they’re looking more solid and consistent but retain the attacking potential that Di Matteo gave them. Liverpool continue to stutter unconvincingly on, but with Suarez in the side they now at least have someone who can make something out of nothing.
Wigan Athletic vs. Tottenham Hotspur (Sat, 3pm)
It’s probably fair to say, and to say it with no disrespect to Wigan, that this match is for many Spus fans, simply getting in the way of their anticipation for their Champions League quarter final against Real Madrid on Tuesday. Doubtless, Harry Redknapp will feel the same way and would rather have done without this game right after the international break, and I can see him resting a few players with that in mind. Wigan will probably be glad of that, because they’re still deep in a relegation battle and need all the help they can get, and if they can catch Spurs cold early on they may well sneak a win here, but I think Tottenham will probably have just enough to beat them.
Arsenal vs. Blackburn Rovers (Sat, 5.30pm)
Arsenal don’t have any distractions at all, much to the despair of their fans who not so very long ago were dreaming of a quadruple. The good thing is that they are still very much in with a shout of winning the league, something that they haven’t necessarily been able to say for a few seasons now, and with their rivals dividing their forces across multiple fronts, may fancy themselves to sneak the title. Rovers shouldn’t provide much of an obstacle at the Emirates, being poor on the road themselves and knowing that Arsenal are good at home, one feels that Arsenal can really only beat themselves, and you wouldn’t put it past them, but I think they’ll win.
Fulham vs. Blackpool (1.30pm)
Not the sort of fixture you’d usually expect to see as the blockbuster early Sunday kickoff, but the way Blackpool have played this season, there could well be some real entertainment on show. The only thing is that Fulham under Hughes have started to find their feet and developed into a team that are very solid and in Craven Cottage’s cramped conditions, it’s difficult to open them up. Blackpool of course will give it a damn good go, as they know no other way, but I think they may expose themselves to defeat in doing so.
Manchester City vs. Sunderland (Sun, 4pm)
I don’t know what it is about Sunderland, but every season I think they’re going to surprise people and do well. And it seems, at the beginning, that they think that too, and that condifdence sees them start with promise. But somehow or other, that early promise always fades away until, before they know it, they’re all but in a releation battle despite having real quality in their side. Here at Man City, they really need a win, but I can’t really see them getting one. City are a little inconsistent under Mancini, and aren’t fulfilling their potential, but at home with an FA Cup semi against their fierce rivals on the horizon, they should see this one out.
What do you think of this week’s predictions? If you disagree or want to make some of your own, leave a comment below…
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