Stoke City vs. Manchester United
Man United return to Premier League action after winning the World Club Cup in Japan, and they will be looking to continue their good form to begin to capitalise on the points dropped by their title rivals in their absence. They will fully expect to beat Stoke, and I would back them too, but I think it will be a tough return for them. Stoke have picked up a few injuries but will be as committed and physical as ever, and will continue to employ their trademark long-throw tactics. United will have to be very sound defensively and up for a fight, so Ferguson will hope his players aren’t too jaded after their flights and Christmas.
Chelsea vs. West Bromwich Albion
Big Phil saw his side matched by an impressive Everton performance the other day, and will know that his side needs to get back to winning ways as soon as possible. He will surely pair Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba up front at home against the Baggies in an attempt to counter the defensive setup of most teams visiting the Bridge this season. West Brom got a great three points against money-bags City last week, and will be full of confidence going into this. If they defend soundly, there is always a chance that Chelsea’s back line may be compromised, with Carvalho still injured and Terry suspended, Alex and Ivanovic will form a relatively inexperienced duo at the back. Still, I would expect Chelsea to get three points, but this season, one can never be too sure.
Portsmouth vs. West Ham United
West Ham suffered at the hands of lady luck last week as a very good battling performance saw them match high flying Villa, only to succumb to a wicked deflection from Milner’s hopeful shot. If Zola can get his players back up after that crushing loss they will cause Adams problems here. Portsmouth are still a very good team on paper but have struggled for form of late. They have good options going forward with their little and large partnership given good service by Krankjar in particular, but defensively they look vulnerable. Bellamy could cause them problems and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see the Hammers sneak a win here today.
Tottenham Hotspur vs. Fulham
Fulham are looking pretty good at times this season but Roy Hodgson will be dying for that elusive away win against London rivals Spurs today. Tottenham’s revival has slowed (inevitably I feel) since Redknapp’s miraculous first few weeks in charge and now the real work starts. He will want to strengthen the squad but must be careful not to unsettle the current players. I think this one will be a good game, with both teams liking to get the ball down and play and it will come down to who is most clinical in front of goal. If that is the case, I would back Fulham, as Spurs’ strikers still aren;t firing on all cylinders, while Fulham looked in good nick last week against ‘Borough.
Liverpool vs. Bolton Wanderers
Bolton have hit some form recently and the players look to be enjoying themselves. Record signing Elmander is starting to look worth the money they paid and as a whole Gary Megson will be quite happy with his side going into January, with only a couple of signings needed to add a touch of strength in depth. Liverpool picked up a point at Arsenal in midweek, but were fortunate to see the home side down to ten men after despicable play acting from Arbeloa. They have had a few disappointing home results of late and I think Bolton could upset the apple cart again today if they can put in a resilient performance.
Manchester City vs. Hull City
Hull got an absolute beating at the hands of Sunderland last week, and that won’t have been good for their confidence. Still, before that they had been playing well and I think Phil Brown will pick them up again, and there’s no doubt he’ll send them out to attack a nervous Man City side. Hughes is now the Premier League’s man under pressure and knows he needs to resurrect the teams fortunes to keep himself in work. If he is to do that they need to go back to basics and become hard to play against. It’s all very well having the flair of Robinho and Ireland and Shaun Wright-Phillips, but if you’re easy to score against, you’re not going to win. I think Hull’s audacious attacking setup may give them the edge in this one, and pile more misery on City.
Middlesbrough vs. Everton
It doesn’t seem long since these two sides met at Goodison, a game in which Everton dominated but conceded early, and though they got back on level terms, couldn’t break through Borough’s resistance to get a winner. Today Borough will be under more pressure at home to attack, and they are without a win in six games so the pressure is on them. On the other hand, Everton’s striking ranks are severely depleted, but Cahill has proved an able deputy, given good support from the midfield. I think Everton should be able to grab a goal or two against Borough, and hopefully our defence (which has been much more solid as the season has progressed) can deny Borough’s own attacking force.
Sunderland Athletic vs. Blackburn Rovers
Sunderland’s turnaround since Keane left has been rather drastic. The players look full of confidence and are playing some really good football, and in taking Hull apart last week, showed that they do have a lot of quality in the side. Blackburn will be hoping to continue a revival of their own under new boss Allardyce but he faces a big test here today. He got a great start last week, with early goals killing the game, and it should give them confidence for this one, but the Black Cats are full of it too. I think home advantage may just shade it for Sunderland but fully expect it to be a tight and cagey affair.
Wigan Athletic vs. Newcastle United
Against Tottenham last week Newcastle got a result that they will be delighted with, and their squad is starting to look more healthy. They will be boosted by the fact that Michael Owen seems like sticking around until the summer at least (unless they receive an offer too good to refuse I suppose) and will hope to pick up three away points at Wigan. That will be easier said than done though as Wigan have hit some good form again and always look like causing problems for their opponents with a very physical front line given good service from the much coveted Valencia. For me, this game has draw written all over it, so I fully expect someone to run out comfortable winners, as the League seems to do the unexpected at every opportunity this term.
Aston Villa vs. Arsenal
Villa’s main threat, the pace of Young and Agbonlahor, will be negated slightly if Arsenal are sensible to play deep defensively at Villa Park in this one. Of course, they will be going for all three points, but Wenger will be shrewd enough to know that they will be punished if they over commit. I think this will be a very edgy match, with Arsenal desperate to get back above Villa into the top four and Villa trying to cling on to their advantage in the league table, which gives them such a huge confidence boost. Games with as much as this riding on them often disappoint, and it may well go to a scrappy draw. Arsenal have shown a few times this season that they can win the big games, but without Fabregas they are a different prospect and I think the spoils will be shared this boxing day.